Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs (BACONGO)
Belmopan -- More than four hundred people gathered this week in Belize’s capital city, Belmopan to protest plans by a Newfoundland company, in conjunction with the government of Belize, to build a hydroelectric dam in the undisturbed Macal River Valley.
This is the largest to date of the growing protests against the dam, which included sugar cane farmers from the north of the country, Maya communities from the south and villages from along the Macal river who are concerned about the dam’s effects on their river.
Outside the Prime Minister’s office, citizens carried signs opposing the “rape” of Belize’s environment by Fortis, and wore t-shirts, which have become popular throughout the country, with the phrase “Fortis, forget it! The Macal River is ours.”
Many of the Belizean leaders of this movement addressed the crowds, warning that the dam would flood habitat for the Scarlet Macaw, and the tapir, Belize’s national animal. It would also lead to higher electricity rates and undermine the country’s growing nature based tourism industry.
“[Fortis CEO] Stan Marshall is telling Canadians that the people of Belize want this dam. That’s not true. We don’t want his dam, and we’re asking Newfoundland groups to help us stop it.” said Jamillah Vasquez, executive director of the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGO’s, one of the organizers of the demonstration.
Greg Malone, prominent Newfoundland satirist and environmental activist joined Belizean, Canadian, and U.S. groups at a meeting at the Toronto Stock Exchange last week calling on Fortis shareholders to cancel plans for the dam. Malone referred to the successful fight to stop Fortis from privatizing Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro: “Now, Fortis seems to want in Belize, what they could not get in Newfoundland....The board of directors of Fortis cannot possibly justify taking the life from the Macal River Valley to increase their dividends. I urge them to show some healthy shame and to withdraw and not take what does not belong to them,” said Malone.
Fortis, monopoly owner of Belize’s electricity company, claims its dam is needed to provide electricity for “poor Belizeans”. However, Belizean’s already pay Fortis more than three times higher electricity rates than the average in Canada—largely because of the costs of a smaller dam Fortis owns downstream of the proposed dam.
“Belizeans can’t afford electricity from Fortis as it is.” said Belizean energy expert, Ambrose Tillett. “This dam will only make things worse. Cheaper sources of electricity are available, but Fortis makes more money if the cost of electricity is higher,” said Tillet.
The demonstration against Fortis’ dam was timed to coincide with the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Meeting. However, Prime Minister Said Musa—an outspoken supporter of the dam project—cancelled the meeting and personally spent the morning rounding up counter-demonstrators. Even Belize’s evening news—usually supportive of the government’s position on the dam—labeled Musa’s supporters a “rent-a-crowd”.
Maya indigenous communities disagree with the government’s plan to go forward with the dam without investigating the significant undisturbed Maya monuments that would be flooded. More than five hundred Maya have signed a petition calling on the government to preserve their cultural heritage and not to flood the Macal River Valley.
Sugar cane farmers argue that burning cane waste or Bagasse, as it’s locally known, is a viable option for energy production in the country, but that the government and Fortis have shoved this option aside in favor of the dam. "We have ten thousand cane farmers that can benefit...whereas only sixteen families would benefit from Chalillo. The difference is clear, simple economic sense." said Willfred Novelo, a sugar worker.
, Executive Director, BACONGO, Belize, (501) 2 33385
Tony Garel, Chair, BACONGO, 501 2 3003
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