Rainforest dam row goes before law lords

Privy council urged to halt construction of power project in Belize

Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Wednesday December 3, 2003

The Guardian

Five law lords sitting in Downing Street today will be asked to stop the building of a dam in Belize which could wipe out one of the most important wildlife sites in central America. 

It is the first time that the privy council, the highest court in the Commonwealth, has been asked to adjudicate on an environmental issue. Normally it is used as the appeal court of last resort in death penalty cases. 

The Chalillo dam will flood 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of pristine forest - the home of the rare scarlet macaw, of which 200 remain, big cats, jaguars, ocelots and puma, and one frog species not found anywhere else. 

The dam is to generate 7MW of electricity, enough to power three large hotels, and is being built by the Canadian company Fortis, which has a monopoly over electricity distribution in Belize. Locals already pay three times as much for power as their neighbours in Mexico. 

Amec, a London-based civil engineering company, compiled an environmental assessment for the site which has been heavily criticised. The privy council is being asked to find that this report was improperly approved by the Belize government, and that construction should be halted. The appeal is being mounted by Bacongo, the Belize association of non-government organisations, which has the support of a number of celebrities, including Harrison Ford, and Robert F Kennedy Jr, an attorney at the Washington-based Natural Resources Defence Council. 

A British scientist, Alastair Rogers, who was head of a Natural History Museum mission looking at the environmental consequences of a dam, is shocked that the project was given the go-ahead. 

In a letter to the chief environmental officer of Belize, Ismael Fabro, he said: "It is clear that constructing a dam at Chalillo would cause major, irreversible, negative environmental impacts of national and international significance - and that no effective mitigation measures would be possible. 

"The project would destroy the vast majority of a critical and unique habitat, threaten ing the last viable populations of many vulnerable and endangered wildlife species in Belize." 

It would also destroy some important unexcavated Mayan archaeological sites. 

Amec has been criticised for its geological report on the dam site, which said the bedrock was granite although subsequently it proved to be sandstone. This has put back construction by several months and may increase the project's 20m cost. 

Sharon Matola, the director of Belize Zoo, who is in London for the hearing, said: "This is an environmental disaster for Belize, the geology is all wrong for dam building and puts the people downstream in danger. This is an active seismic area with a visible faultline less than a mile away. 

"But that is not the only reason this project is bad. Fortis has a deal which means that whatever the price of electricity from this dam, the company can sell it on to the people of Belize, even if they could get power cheaper elsewhere." 

Currently most of Belize's power comes from Mexico and the government wants to ensure security of supply. The environmental group wants electricity to be generated from waste products from the sugar cane industry, which it says would produce three times as much electricity as the proposed dam and provide half the country's needs. 

In a statement, Amec said it had produced a professional, highly detailed report that had been debated thoroughly by government and independent bodies since it was submitted. The report was for information only and made no recommendations. 

The key geological issue examined was the strength of the foundation rock for the proposed dam - the strength of the rock below the soil and the weathered surface material. This was able to support pressure many times higher than would be applied by the dam. Amec added that it was no longer involved in the project. 

Fortis staff involved in the case were in meetings yesterday and not available. The hearing is expected to last two days. 

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