February 14, 2002
Environmental and business groups sue to stop Canadian rainforest dam

Belize City--Environmental and business groups filed a lawsuit last week to block a controversial Canadian-backed dam in the rainforests of Belize.  

 The lawsuit challenges the Belizean government’s conditional go-ahead for the “Chalillo” dam project without public hearings or consideration of  hundreds of pages of comments from leading scientists, as required by Belizean law.

The lawsuit  also charges the dam’s proponents, Newfoundland-based Fortis Inc. and its partner, the Belize government,  with breaking the country’s environmental law by allowing preparation work to begin at the dam site before the project’s environmental review is completed.  Construction began on the access road to the dam site this month, despite official statements from Fortis and the Belize government  that no work has started.

Opponents of the project say the dam would  flood one of the last intact rainforests in Central America, destroying habitat for rare and endangered species including the jaguar, scarlet macaw, and Belize’s national animal, the tapir.

Review of the project was rushed through a government technical committee in two days, following demonstrations against the dam in Belize’s capital city of Belmopan.  The government committee announced its conditional approval despite major gaps and errors in the 1500 page environmental assessment which it was required to review as part of the decision. The committee ignored comments provided by numerous experts showing that the assessment—paid for by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)— underestimates harm to the environment and provides incorrect information about the bedrock that the dam would be built upon.  Geologists say that this misinformation could lead to failure of the dam, and put downstream communities at risk.

“The dam will put our children and our environment at risk. If Fortis and the government follow the law, we are convinced that this dam will not be built.  We are going to take this lawsuit as far as it takes to get justice.” said Jamillah Vasquez, Executive Director of the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs.

The first of its kind in Belize, the lawsuit was brought by Belizean environmental and tourism groups  (the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs, Belize Eco-tourism Association), and marks the latest escalation of citizens’ efforts to stop the dam.

On the international front, David Suzuki, actor Harrison Ford, artist Robert Bateman, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. have weighed in against the project. “In nearly two decades as an environmental lawyer, this is one of the worst cases I’ve seen of profiteering at the expense of people and the environment,” said Kennedy, a staff attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council, who joined Belizeans in Toronto and Belize City last year to speak out about the project.  “Fortis and its partners are breaking the law in Belize in a way they could never do in the US or Canada.”

Fortis, Inc. owns Belize’s national  electric utility and  wants to build the Chalillo dam to store water for for a smaller hydro dam downstream, also Fortis-owned.

Critics point out that construction of the first dam is largely to blame  for the high electricity rates Belizeans already pay to Fortis—three times the average in Canada – and that Fortis is denying Belizeans cheaper, better generating options that would leave the Macal River Valley intact.

Meanwhile in Canada, environmental groups launched a full-page ad in Ottawa’s Hill Times, assailing the federal government for paying for the proponents’ shoddy assessment of the dam.

“The assessment is wrong, the project is unsound, and the Canadian government must recall its assessment immediately.” said Gráinne Ryder of Probe International, one of the groups that sponsored the ad.

Thousands of letters have been sent to Fortis, urging the company to abandon the dam project, and the campaign has gained worldwide access through the internet.  Opponents of the project have put together a website stopfortis.org and an online petition that has been signed by people from as far away as New Zealand and Uruguay.


, Natural Resources Defense Council, Phone (202) 289-2388

Jamillah Vasquez, Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs (BACONGO), Phone 501 2 33385


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