March 1, 2002

The BRINCO of Belize

by Greg Malone
presentation delivered at press conference, Fairmont Hotel, St. John's, NF

 I have 30,000 signed petitions here from around the world, many from the US and Canada, but also from Europe and Central and South America.  I also have many letters and drawings from school children around Newfoundland and Labrador, and I would like to read out a few of them before I begin.

These children, these petitioners want Fortis to stop the project. Why?  What are they asking for?

Why should we be interested in this project of Fortis Inc.?  Why should we be concerned?   There are many projects like this one underway around the world but few of them generate the kind of global controversy that this one has.

These petitioners  are asking that Fortis respect the laws of Belize and the people of Belize.  In short that Fortis respect the Environmental Review Process that is the only protection for people,  and for animals and plant species, and their environments, against the greed of powerful multinationals.

The Environmental Review Process for the Fortis Chalillo Dam project is paid for by the Canadian public. $500,000 of Canadian taxpayer money was given to Fortis by CIDA, the Canadian International Development Fund, when it was under Brian Tobinís authority, and Mr. Tobin sat on the committee that approved this half million dollar gift to Fortis.   But   it was our money.  What has happened with that money, that process.

Well, Fortis gave the contract for this EIA to AMEC, the second largest engineering firm in the world. Unfortunately for Fortis, AMEC gave part of the EIA to the British Natural History Museum of London, a world renowned organization which conducted a study of the wildlife in the area.

They concluded that there would be extensive and irreversible damage to many rare and endangered species of animal life in the area, damage that could not be mitigated, and that the Macal river system  was a key area for the propagation and survival of these species.  They strongly recommended the project not go ahead. Environmentalists around the world, like David Suzuki, agreed.

But Fortis did not.  Fortis said these world experts didnít know what they were talking about.  The animals would all be fine.  Fortis, in fact, set themselves  up as a wildlife experts over every other expert.

Then the geological component of the EIA came under question.  AMEC, the engineering firm hired by Fortis, with our money, to conduct the EIA, had produced a geological report so full of flaws and errors that it was useless as a basis for design and construction.  They had drilled only four core samples, not forty or hundreds as is the standard.    They claimed the bedrock was pure granite, yet when the core samples were checked by independent geologists, they found no granite at all, only sandstone and shale.  This was consistent with geological studies of the area since the 1920's.  In fact the geologists could crumble the shale from the core samples in their hands they were that loose.  Hardly a foundation for a 150 ft. structure under constant pressure.

Again, Fortis was  unfazed.  At first they  said the geologists did not know what they were talking about, but as the evidence mounted they said it didnít matter what the bedrock was. Sandstone, shale, it was all the same to him.  So now Fortis are not only  wildlife experts, theyíre geological experts as well.

In reply to concerns about these astonishing aberrations, Fortis proceeded to eliminate all public consultation, all public input into the Environmental Review process, and refused to look at the many submissions from scientists around the world.

With the collusion of their friends in the Belize Government, they rushed through a conditional approval, and started work at the dam site.  All in violation of Belize law.

The people of Belize have a legal and moral right to be consulted and to participate in this process.  They are the ones who are going to pay for this project.  They will pay $800 million for it over the next fifty years.  They have a right to have their say.  But Fortis doesnít want to hear from them.  They wonít let them in.

Environmental reviews are almost the only protection that vulnerable populations and vulnerable environments have against unprincipled governments and powerful, ruthless corporations.  It is in all our interests to see that these Reviews are respected and legitimate.  Especially since we are paying for it.

This is why these petitions are here.  This is why a coalition of business and environmental groups in Belize have launched a lawsuit against Fortis and the Government of Belize, whom they contend are in violation of Belizean law by rushing ahead with construction on the site without proper process and proper approval.

Fortis and the Belizean Government tried to have the lawsuit thrown out on a technicality, not in the body of the lawsuit, but on a technicality of filing the lawsuit.  This week the judge ruled against them, and said that this case is not about technicalities, it is about justice.

Justice and Truth.  Two concepts that the CEO of Fortis and, I am sad to say, the Board of Directors of Fortis, seem entirely indifferent to, in fact, they are contemptuous of it.

But yesterday in Belize, after hearing opening arguments, the Judge ruled that there was sufficient evidence, sufficient legal ground for the Court to hear the case.  This is a very significant decision in Belize, a small country which was a colony up until 1981, and where the institutions of democracy, like an independent judiciary, are still just taking root.  This is the first lawsuit of its kind in the Country.

Weíve had experience with Fortis here in Newfoundland.  They tried to get Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro for $300 million, establish a power monopoly and have us as a captive market.  We stopped that outrage and since then Hydro has returned to us, the taxpayers, over $400 million in dividends.  Fortis wanted to fleece us.  Now they want to fleece Belize.

Remember when BRINCO came to Newfoundland.  John C Doyle wanted to build a dam and develop Newfoundland for Newfoundlanders.  Wonderful.  We were told weíd have to be blind, deaf and dumb, all three at once, not to see what a wonderful opportunity for Newfoundland and Labrador.  Well, that was fifty years ago, and since then the blind have opened their eyes, the deaf have heard, and the dumb have spoken, and have said that BRINCO was a disaster for Newfoundland and Labrador and robbed us blind.

Well Fortis, this dam, are the BRINCO of Belize.  They arenít doing any good for the people of Belize.  They are carpetbaggers, taking advantage of Belize like BRINCO did here. Who doesnít want a river?  Itís the best guaranteed income you can get.   You donít have to pay Mexico for power, you donít have to pay for messy coal or oil, or even sugar cane.  You donít have to pay for nuttiní.  The river does all the work for you.  Sweet deal.  Too sweet.

In Newfoundland weíve spent the past several years fighting off dams.  Every yo-yo with enough money for a generator wants a river, of course.  But once the river starts working for the new owner, it stops working for everyone, and everything else.  It dies.

Weíve only been damming rivers around the world in a big way for about a hundred years, to the delight of the concrete lobby.  For decades weíve been saying - ĎOh, we donít need that lake.  Flood it.  Oh, we donít need that river.  Dam it.  Donít need that river, donít need that one.í-  How many rivers donít we need exactly?  We donít know yet.  But the effect of dams we do know.  The evidence is in and itís conclusive.  Dams = Death.  Thereís no mitigation, no rescuing the Macaw or the jaguar, no saving the tapir.  They die, they drown, lose their home, their food.  They die.

We are simply not sophisticated, or knowledgeable enough yet to know the real value of the rich plant and animal life in the Macal River Valley, what it may hold in DNA, pharmaceuticals, herbs, and what it can contribute toto our understanding of life itself.   We just donít know yet.  Itís in all our interests that we get a chance to find out.

But the sacrifice and destruction   of any rare and diverse life systems must produce significant benefits for a great number of people, not just for a few shareholders at Fortis here in Canada.  Certainly thereís no advantage to the people of Belize.  Their rates will go up.  The people in the Valley will all suffer losses, and for what?    Six megawatts, my friends.  I nearly choked when I was told.  The dam on the Upper Churchill River in Labrador caused significant environmental damage, no extinctions, but great damage.  But it generates six thousand megawatts, not six.

How can six megawatts justify this scale of destruction and loss?  Six megawatts.  Put the Board of Fortis on stationery bikes and let them peddle up that much power.

Country after country, in the Developed World are decommissioning dams, attempting to undo the damage done and reclaim the life of their river systems.  Newfoundland has now imposed a moratorium on dams on the Island, after the tragic loss of the Star Lake eco-system. This project could not happen here in Canada.

The Board of Directors of Fortis Inc. cannot justify taking all the life from the Macal River System just to increase their dividends.  I urge them to show some healthy shame and withdraw and not take what is not theirs.  Fortis has a comfortable profit margin.  This is not about their survival.  Itís about the survival of the Macal River Valley. 

We, petitioners, ask that Fortis and AMEC and the Canadian Government respect and follow the guidelines set out in the Environmental Review Process.  There are lots of honest ways to make money.  This is not one of them.

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