Chalillo Dam

Damming Belize

Colin Woodard
E Magazine Vol. XV, no. 6
November 12, 2004

Opposition against the Chalillo dam remains strong in Belize.

Belize’s western mountains are
an ecotourist’s dream: a largely uninhabited region of dense tropical
forests, wild rivers, cave complexes, Maya ruins and bountiful
wildlife. While many of its Central American neighbors were clearing
forests to make way for slash-and-burn agriculture, Belize has been
making far more money keeping the trees in place. Today tourism of the
nation¬πs economic activity and employs a quarter of its workforce. The
mountainous Cayo region is one of the main draws.

But Belize’s government is dead-set on building a dam on the upper
Macal River, smack in the heart of Cayo. The $30 million Chalillo dam
will flood 2,800 acres of tropical forest that is home to jaguars,
ocelots, tapirs and the country¬πs only known flock of the rare and
colorful scarlet macaw. “This is the prettiest river in the country,”
says Mick Fleming, who owns the Chaa Creek Lodge, an ecotourism resort
set in the jungle 20 miles downstream from the dam site. “We’re going
to lose something incredibly valuable in return for an extremely small
amount of power.”

Plenty of people in Cayo agree with Fleming’s assessment. The city
council in the district capital, San Ignacio, opposes the dam, and the
vice mayor testified against the project during an unsuccessful attempt
to block construction brought before the Privy Council in London last
year. T-shirts and banners bearing such slogans as “The Macal is Ours”
are seen all over town. “We use the river for drinking and swimming and
tourism and canoeing,” explains San Ignacio hotel owner Maria Preston.
“The river is everything for us.”

Belize is extremely short on electricity, but it’s unclear whether
Chalillo is the best way to meet the shortfall. Fortis Inc., the big
Canadian company that will build, own and operate the $30 million dam,
says it will double generating capacity on the Macal River. “We believe
hydroelectricity is the most environmentally friendly type of energy
out there and the most cost-effective for Belize,” says spokesperson
Donna Hynes.

But while the dam will substantially boost domestic electricity
production, most of the power will be generated at times of day when it
is more expensive than importing it from Mexico. A 2000 study by the
California-based Conservation Strategy Fund estimated the project would
be a net drag on the Belizean economy. The dam is also being built near
an active fault line, and Fortis admitted that it mischaracterized the
geological properties of the site.

“This a bad project all the way around,” says Gr√°inne Ryder, policy
director of Probe International in Toronto, which has led a campaign
against Chalillo in Canada. “Fortis may make a quick profit out of it,
but Belizeans will be left with the real costs for generations.”

Categories: Chalillo Dam

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