Campaigners fight Belize dam

By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

The UK's historic Privy Council is to hear a challenge to the construction of a dam in Belize, in central America.

Environmental campaigners say the dam would threaten rare species and pose a serious risk to communities downstream.


(artist's impression of proposed dam)

They say the dam will produce too little electricity to be worthwhile, and believe there are other ways of securing the country's energy supply.

The dam's backers say it is the most economic option for Belize, and will lessen its reliance on Mexican energy.

The challenge to the building of the 50-metre (165-foot) high Chalillo dam is being brought by the Belize Association of Non-governmental Organisations (Bacongo).

It is asking the council to overturn the approval of the dam by the government of Belize, and to order studies of its safety and impacts, with construction halted in the meantime.

Among the functions of the Privy Council, one of the oldest parts of the British Government machine, is the provision of a final court of appeal for those Commonwealth countries that have chosen to retain it.

The hearing, on 3 and 4 December, is believed to be the first time the council has been asked to rule on an environmental issue.

The dam is being built on the Upper Macal River, one of the largest undisturbed areas of wilderness left in central America, by Becol, a Belizean subsidiary of a Canadian multinational, Fortis Inc.

Bacongo says the environmental impact assessment of the dam, completed by the London firm Amec, was seriously flawed.

It plans to tell the council: the agreement between the government of Belize and Fortis could drive up the cost of electricity Amec wrongly identified the rock at the dam site as granite, although it is softer sandstone and shale fault lines near the dam site were removed from maps submitted to the government Amec's hydrological studies of the Macal were inadequate: at the height of the wet season the river's entire flow, Bacongo says, fitted in four small pipes.

The Upper Macal is home to a number of rare and endangered species, including the tapir, the national animal of Belize.

Some zoologists believe it has a high density of large cats, including jaguars, ocelots and pumas.

Unable to migrate

It is the only known breeding ground in Belize of a rare sub-species of scarlet macaw, with 1,000 survivors worldwide.

Sharon Matola, the founder of the Belize Zoo and a member of Bacongo, told BBC News Online: "If the dam is built it will flood the macaws' nesting area.

"That will eventually mean their extinction in Belize, where there are only 200 left, because they don't build nests but live in holes in trees - and the trees they choose occur nowhere else in the country.

"Expecting the macaws to move elsewhere is like telling penguins to get used to warmer weather.

"The tapirs need the special vegetation that you find in the area, plants which grow in full sun and so have few toxins but plenty of nutrition.

"And if the tapirs go, there'll be nothing to attract predators like the jaguars to the area.


"The dam won't give Belize energy security - it'll produce enough power to run three large hotels.

"We could burn sugar cane waste, which is abundant, or we could go on using the transmission line to Mexico, or join the new Central American grid that's being planned."

Images courtesy and copyright of Bacongo.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2003/12/03 11:39:01 GMT


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