January 27, 2004
The UK’s historic Privy Council is hearing a challenge to the
construction of the 50-metre-high Chalillo dam in Belize, in central
America. Science correspondent David Shukman has been to see the work
|The long dirt road to Chalillo snaked up
through the forests of the Maya
Mountains in Belize and the potholes
gouged by the tropical rain were so deep
I wondered if our four-wheel-drive
would make it.
Our first sight was a bleak encampment for the construction workers.
Row upon row of huts, surrounded by a sea of mud, house teams hired
from as far afield as China, Nepal and India. As we waited to be
escorted to the dam site itself, the Chinese workers were preparing a
feast to celebrate their New Year and their laughter rose above the
gentle sounds of table tennis. Two of the project’s senior engineers
led us further into the mountains, our cars eventually stopping on a
sharp bend overlooking the deep valley of the Macal River. Far below
lay pale scars of bare earth where the jungle had been stripped to make
way for access roads and assembly areas. I hadn’t realised how advanced
the project was: heavy vehicles were in place along with a massive
rock-crusher and two storage towers for cement. Standing amid these
giant works, it hardly seemed feasible that a panel of British judges,
sitting on the Privy Council, could actually bring all this to a halt.
The dam’s developers, the Belize Electricity Company, admit that the PR
battle has hurt them ‚Äì who could match a protesting Cameron Diaz in a
canoe? ‚Äì but they certainly believe that nothing will stop the project
from being completed. The case turns on whether the environmental
assessment was adequately handled. Campaigners argue that the rock at
the dam site is sandstone not granite as the developers once claimed
and that a fault-line running right over the site was conveniently
removed from a key map. The electricity company says its opponents
latch on to the smallest error and blow it out of proportion.
|Like so many projects of this kind, it’s a questionof balance betweenencouraging development and minimising destruction.
Belize’s image as an eco-friendly tourist destination may suffer if the
dam goes ahead. On the other hand, asks a senior electricity executive,
how will those tourists enjoy air-conditioning if we don’t go ahead?
The dilemma is clear. The problem is the effects of the dam are likely
to be irreversible. During my stay, I was cooled by an electrically
powered fan but also woke to a gentle orchestra of bird-song rising
from the banks of a river that may be changed for ever.
Categories: Chalillo Dam