Chalillo Dam

Public hearing equals public farce

The Reporter
January 20, 2003


The public hearing on Chalillo, ordered by the Supreme Court, which was held in Cayo late last week, was supposed to give the Belizean public a forum to air their views and concerns about the controversial Macal River Dam. It did not do so.

The public hearing on Chalillo, ordered by the Supreme Court, which was held in Cayo late last week, was supposed to give the Belizean public a forum to air their views and concerns about the controversial Macal River Dam. It did not do so.

Instead the Department of the Environment and BELCO took control of the forum by blatantly overpowering the first hour of “Presentations” with BELCO’s chosen speakers and then stacking the public debate with their own supporters. Although they advertised the start of the meeting at 5:30, they allowed their chosen pro-dam speakers to register prior to 5:30 – a simple method of ensuring that the first group of ‘public speakers’ were loud in their praise of Chalillo. I registered at 5.30 for a chance to get in my three minutes of objections. At least 15 speakers preceeded me – nearly all pro dam and many of them directly and indirectly connected to government. That was their technique on the
public debate side. The structure of the meeting on the ‘official’ side was even more unbalanced.

BELCO’s presentation was in the form of selected speakers supported by huge PowerPoint video screens and hand-held remotes to emphasise their presentations. When prior to Thursday many ordinary Belizeans requested information about the forum, and the rules for presentations, they were told that they would find out on the night – at the meeting place and therefore denying any possibility of data or video supported presentations. What BELCO also did was bus in people from a number of
Cayo villages and from Benque and stack the meeting hall – their stooges easily recognizable by their pro-Chalillo shirts provided by BELCO.

As the meeting was officially organized by the Department of the Environment, they must take the blame for the total lack of balance in the manner in which the opening session was conducted. Far from being a public forum the opening speakers were deliberately chosen to air BELCO’s views. The Challilo Project Manager, Joseph Sukhnandan, gave a
25 minute recital of the marvels of Chalillo in his 15 minute allotted slot. Mr. Wilfred Guerrero, president of the Professional Engineers of Belize, spoke for almost 20 minutes longer than his 10 minute slot – and any doubt about who he was working for was  dispelled when he admitted he found it difficult to read the huge video screen and he
hadn’t really had time to study his brief because, “BEL only gave it to me the other day.”

BECOL’s Mr Lynn Young, in his allotted 10 minutes, ran into early difficulties with the Chairman of the meeting, Mr. Eric Fairweather, when he started to verbally abuse critics of Challilo. Mr. Fairweather quickly reminded him that it was a public forum to discuss Chalillo not abuse individuals. No geology report of any sort was offered by BELCO –
possibly because all of Belize’s reputable geologists have now questioned Fortis’s geological findings about the dam site. BACONGO’s representative, Tony Garel, informed the meeting that his organization considered the Public Forum, as structured, totally inadequate and said BACONGO would not make an official presentation at all but that he would, as a private citizen take his allotted three minutes. He quickly outlined some of the very real problems of the entire project. Mr. Dennis Jones of the Association of National Development Agencies was lukewarm about the project but did suggest more
information was needed before the project proceeded. How the Chief Justice of Belize, Mr. Abdulai Conteh, will view the management of this Public Hearing by the DOE in Cayo last week, and how he will assess BECOL’s deliberate policy of attempting to silence legitimate public debate on the Chalillo issue, will be interesting to see – particularly
as the Chief Justice stressed in his recent judgment that any public hearing should not revert to being a mere public discussion – as already held by BELCO. If anything at all, last week’s meeting was less than a public discussion – it was a public farce – and yet another illustration of the methods used by backers of Chalillo to halt all real or serious discussion about the dam. BELCO’s chosen stooges, almost without exception, plugged the benefits which Chalillo would bring to rural householders and to businesses in Belize by lowering rates. Well, considering that Fortis themselves admit electricity prices WILL NOT GO DOWN but UP with Chalillo and that the dam, even if it works to its fullest possible capacity and is augmented by a third dam, WILL NEVER produce more than one fifth of Belizes Electricity needs, their views are either naive or deliberately misleading.

Interestingly, when Mr. Sukhnanadan addressed the possible alternative sources of energy for Belize, he could only revert to studies more than a decade old. He did not mention that the International Power group AES had offfered Belize a long term contract for energy delivered to the Belize border for considerably less than Chalillo will ever be able to produce power. He did not mention that today Guatemala produces a large
amount of competitive electric power from her old sugar mills, he did not mention that cogeneration from biomass combined with Belize’s own very pure and easily accessed oil reserves in the Cayo District could produce power for the next 50 years at less than half the price of power from Chalillo and he completely bypassed alternative sources of
energy from wind and sun, which are today becoming real alternatives to fossil fuel.

No, the truth of Chalillo is that it is not about electricity at all – or cheaper power for the Belizean people. It is about making a huge windfall of dollars for a very few Belizean individuals and a powerful foreign company, a scenario which, as I pointed out at the meeting, contains very real dangers for the lives and possessions of thousands of Belizeans. A dam break could send a hundred-and-twenty foot wall of water down the Macal River and wipe out entire village communites, and a great deal of San Ignacio and Santa Elena, possibly killing hundreds. Either Fortis Inc. has done a simulated computer study of this (cost about $10,000) and suppressed it or they have not bothered to do any
study at all. Either way, suggests criminal negligence of a high degree and yet, if the dam did break, they could walk away from it for $1. When I discussed this with BECOL’s Lynn Young at the meeting, he contradicted me by saying that I did not understand that the 3rd Master Agreement did not release Fortis from responsibility to individual Belizeans. But, here is the clause exactly reproduced from the agreement, and I challenge Mr. Young to contradict it: “11.2 Natural Catastrophe: This agreement may be terminated by the Producer upon five days prior written notice if the project is destroyed, severely damaged or its operation is substantially impaired due to catastrophe . . .” And “11.4: . . . Upon the termination or expiration of this agreement, the Producer’s right, title and interest in and to the Mollejon Project will be transferred and assigned to the government for one dollar U.S. and the Producer shall have no further liability or responsibility with respect to the Mollejon project or any matter related thereto or arising therefrom.” Then in clause 17.2, “Limitations on Liability. (a) In no event shall the Producer be liable, whether in contract, tort, negligence, strict liability or otherwise for any indirect, incidental or consequential damages of any nature arising at any time from any cause whatsoever.” A vocal and popular speaker at the hearing, even among many of BECOL’s bused in audience, was Cayo’s Civic Society leader, Godsman Ellis. He called the deal between the government and BECOL, a “sweetheart deal” and criticized the prime minister, the Hon. Said Musa, for publicly supporting Chalillo prior to NEAC’s assessment of the project. He noted that nine of the NEAC members were government officials. Mr. Ellis emphasised that “due process” was not followed at any stage in the Chalillo project and said: “The ‘done deal’ syndrome has taken over the psyche of most Belizeans who now refrain from speaking out,” and he concluded, “There is a loud cry for practical democracy in Belize.”
Both supporters and opponents of the Chalillo Project came together on one issue. There was nothing but praise for the chairman of the public hearing, the former public officer Mr. Eric Fairweather, and the fair and balanced manner in which he conducted the hearing.

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Categories: Chalillo Dam, Odious Debts

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