February 11, 2002

Foreign Aid misused to justify controversial rainforest dam, say environmental groups

click here to see the Hill Times Ad
see letter from Sierra Club of Canada to MPs

OTTAWA – A coalition of environmental groups has placed an ad in today’s edition of the parliamentary paper The Hill Times, that charges the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) with helping to justify a destructive and costly dam in the rainforests of Belize, Central America.

The beginning stages of construction for the US $30 million “Chalillo” hydro-electric dam began illegally last month without permits or public hearings.  If built, the dam would threaten critical habitat for rare and endangered species including the jaguar, tapir and scarlet macaw.

 Fortis Inc., a billion-dollar Newfoundland-based corporation plans to build the dam in the Macal River Valley despite opposition both in Belize and abroad.  More than eighteen top scientists, including Dr. David Suzuki, have written to Fortis CEO Stan Marshall urging him to cancel plans for the dam.

In today’s advertisement, environmental groups accuse CIDA of assisting the company to “bulldoze” Belizean law and move ahead with plans for the dam.  CIDA funded a $500,000 study which Fortis submitted to Belizean authorities in order to justify construction of the project.  This study, conducted by the Toronto-based engineering firm, AMEC, contains misleading and false information that is potentially life-threatening, the groups claim.  They are demanding that CIDA retract it.


“This dam consitutes an act of biocide in contravention of Canada's
international commitments under the U.N. Convention for the protection of Biological Diversity.” said Elizabeth May, president of the Sierra Club of Canada.

Sierra Club of Canada and other groups say that the CIDA-funded study downplays the devastating effects that the dam, if built, will have on the wildlife that inhabits the Macal River Valley. In addition, they point to warnings by a top geologist in Belize that mistakes in the geological section of the study, if not corrected, could lead to disaster.  CIDA’s study claims that the project site is made of hard granite, when in fact it is made of softer rocks, which increases the potential for dam failure.  CIDA has, to date, not reacted to complaints that its report cannot serve as a basis for the dam's design and construction.

Canadians are not the only ones raising their voices against the dam—opposition is coming from the U.S., Europe, and is strong in Belize itself.  Belizean environmental groups have now joined tourism operators and scientists to bring a lawsuit in order to stop the illegal construction that has begun on the access road for the dam site.

“What Fortis and its partners are doing is wrong.  It is wrong for our
environment, and it is wrong for our economy. It’s illegal, and we are going to see that they stop.” said Sharon Matola, a scientist in Belize, and one of the earliest critics of the proposed dam.

Although Fortis claims that the dam is being built in the interest of Belize, Belizeans already pay Fortis more than three times the average electricity rates in Canada, and the contract for the dam would commit Belizeans to using Fortis's hydro before cheaper sources.

“CIDA's support for this deal reeks of political patronage at public expense.  We are asking our MPs to get to the bottom of it and get Canada out." remarked Grainne Ryder, Policy Director for Probe International.

The Hill Times ad was sponsored by Sierra Club of Canada and Probe International as well as Friends of Nature and Friends of the Environment, groups from Eastern Canada that are putting the spotlight on Fortis’ rainforest dam.

The ad refers readers to a coalition website, stopfortis.org, which features a growing online petition signed by people in Canada and the United States, and around the world, including Thailand, Mexico, New Zealand and others.


Elizabeth May, Executive Director The Sierra Club of Canada, Ottawa,Canada Phone: (613) 241-4611

Gráinne Ryder, Probe International, Toronto, Canada
Phone: (416) 964-9223 ext.228.

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