November 30, 2003
Why Belize's new dam is more than just a natural disaster

Construction continues on a controversial new dam while campaigners drag the case to the Privy Council. From Elizabeth Mistry in Belize

Herald, Scotland

“WHERE are the macaws?” cries Sharon Matola as she scans the tall green palms along the banks of the Macal river. “In the 10 years that I have been coming here, this is the worst it has been. Normally I see dozens of birds. Now there is nothing. It can only be one thing. The blasting at the dam has scared them away.”

After two days kayaking up the Macal with Matola, the director of Belize Zoo and world expert on Ara cyanoptera, a sub-species of the scarlet macaw, it is clear something is very wrong.

Not only have the macaws disappeared, but so has almost all the other wildlife she has been studying for a decade.

“This part of the river is so remote that I would expect to see otters, crocodiles and at least a dozen tapir. The fact that we haven’t seen anything is very worrying. It means that the fauna is being pushed back into a smaller area where it will be harder to find food,” says Matola.

Twenty years ago, the Macal was virtually unexplored. Even the local Mayans rarely ventured here, allowing some of Latin America’s most unique flora and fauna to flourish. The broad cooma palms became the favoured nesting sites of the scarlet macaw – of which there are fewer than 200 left in the wild. And Baird’s tapir, an ancient relative of the horse and national animal of Belize, has found in the unique riverside vegetation both a source of food and shelter.

But now a giant Canadian power company, Fortis, and the Belize government want to build a 50-metre high concrete dam on the river, flooding more than 1000 hectares of rainforest including the breeding grounds of scarlet macaws and Baird’s tapirs.

The Belize government says the dam will provide enough power to satisfy the country’s needs for 50 years. Environmentalists say that burning bagasse, a by-product of the sugar cane industry, would be a cheaper, more sustainable source of energy.

On Wednesday, the battle between the developers and Belize environmental groups arrives in the UK. The Privy Council, acting in its role as last court of appeal for Belize (a colony until 1981), will begin a two-day hearing on the case. It is believed to be the first time an environmental issue has come before the council in an almost 500-year history. And it is not just the fate of the wildlife that is at stake. Mayans who live downstream in the village of Cristo Rey are also worried. Several villagers fear the dam could burst and swamp their homes.

While the environmental impact assessment carried out on behalf of Fortis by British engineering company Amec, claimed the site of the dam is mostly granite – which would provide firm foundations – a separate study by Belize non-governmental organisations concluded the area is mostly limestone, a porous material unlikely to hold back millions of gallons of water.

Both Fortis and its local subsidiary, the monopoly utility company, have dismissed the environmentalist study, but earlier this month a Fortis engineer admitted that, after weeks of blasting and drilling, there was no granite where it had said there would be.

The climbdown follows months of denials and a smear campaign against Matola and other campaigners. However, one engineer insisted that the discovery was “not critical” and that CHWC, the Chinese engineering company working on the project – and which also worked on the Three Gorges Dam in China – was planning to transport more than 300,000 tons of granite from another site “within four weeks”.

Photographs taken last week of the dam site – off limits to the public – show massive environmental damage, even though Fortis promised the impact would be minimal.

If Fortis goes ahead with its plans to begin quarrying granite in the next few weeks, it will be violating Belize law. But this appears not to deter Fortis. Last April, the Belize government rushed through legislation making any rulings over the dam by courts outside Belize void. “This was clearly a move designed to prevent the Privy Council or even the Inter American Court from granting an injunction while more tests are carried out to prove that the information submitted by Fortis was flawed,” says Matola, who has led the five-year battle against the dam.

Brian Holland, a geologist who knows the Macal area well, added: “Fortis relied on the study by Amec which submitted flawed data including a map which had been digitally altered to remove the fault. I view that as a criminal act. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for what happens if that dam breaks.”

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