Campaign Letters

August 2002 Campaign Letter

Grainne Ryder

August 23, 2002

In the last two years, we’ve made our concerns about Fortis and its federal backers heard in parliament, before the Senate, at Fortis shareholders’ meetings in St. John’s, and via the media in Belize, Canada, Great Britain, Mexico, and the United States.


Dear Friends of the Macal River Valley:

We’ve come a long way in our efforts to stop Canadian power company Fortis Inc. from destroying Belize’s Macal River Valley, with special thanks to many of you for keeping the pressure on at home while Belizeans challenge this rogue multinational in court.

In the last two years, we’ve made our concerns about Fortis and its federal backers heard in parliament, before the Senate, at Fortis shareholders’ meetings in St. John’s, and via the media in Belize, Canada, Great Britain, Mexico, and the United States.

Yet despite the public outcry, bulldozers earlier this year began clearing a road through the Chiquibul National Park for the proposed Chalillo dam site. But the bulldozers quickly ground to a halt when the Belizean environmental groups we work with filed two lawsuits challenging the Belize government’s approval of the dam. The first lawsuit challenged the monopoly deal Fortis struck with the Belize government, which shuts out cheaper power producers and guarantees profits to Fortis regardless of the dam’s performance. The second, Belize’s first-ever environmental lawsuit, challenged the government’s environmental clearance for the dam.

Belize’s Supreme Court is expected to render a final decision on the second lawsuit this fall which could stall Fortis until the next dry season, January 2003.

I’d like to share with you some of the highlights of the second case:

The Supreme Court completed eight days of hearings in July. Lawyers for the Belize alliance of conservation groups (known as BACONGO), presented evidence of the government’s violations of Belizean environmental law when it approved the 50-metre high Chalillo dam without a proper environmental assessment or public hearings, and without an open and competitive bidding process. The lawyers argued that the dam’s environmental assessment — paid for by the Canadian International Development Agency and conducted by the Toronto-based engineering firm AMEC — was grossly inadequate and biased. In response to these charges, government lawyers scrambled to cover up major procedural flaws and omissions in its approval of the dam and, much to the surprise of Fortis’ lawyers, denied that the government had ever approved the project!

During the final day of hearings, a hush fell over the courtroom as people living along the Macal River filed in one after another, to take their seats beside the country’s leading environmental and community activists. Most had never been inside a courtroom but they came because they were angry that their government signed their river over to Fortis without their consent, or any accountability for environmental damages. The biggest worry for communities downstream of the proposed dam is its impact on water quality: rotting vegetation in the dam’s reservoir would deoxygenate the water and cause emissions of hydrogen sulphide, a foul-smelling gas that kills fish and leaves water unfit for consumption. “Fortis says the dam will be good for us because it can release more water in the dry season. But what good is more water in the river if it’s stinking and polluted?” said one downstream resident I spoke to when visiting Belize earlier this year.

Whatever the final decision from the Supreme Court, the lawsuits are a remarkable achievement for Belize’s environmental movement. They represent the first major challenge to the government since Belize gained its independence from Britain 20 years ago. Not only did the government concede in court that public hearings and further studies would be needed before official approval could be given to Fortis. It also became evident that Fortis does not have a proper license for its existing hydro facility, Mollejon, let alone Chalillo! The court also ordered Fortis to disclose the terms of its monopoly deal with the government — a document that has since become a hot topic of debate on Belize community radio because it spells out in black and white how Fortis intends to gouge ratepayers while excusing itself from environmental liability for the dam.

Belizean activists have asked us to help keep the spotlight on Canada’s role in this fiasco and to keep pressure on Fortis until it cancels the Chalillo project. So please keep writing to Fortis and its hotels!

And please if you are able to, help support our work by making a donation, either by mail or online.

Sincerely,
GrĂ¡inne Ryder
Policy Director
Probe International
225 Brunswick Avenue
Toronto, Ontario
M5S 2M6

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