December 20, 2002
Judge Orders Public Hearing for Canadian-backed Dam in Central American Rainforest

See the court's decision in Action 61

Probe International and Natural Resources Defense Council

Belize’s Supreme Court has recommended public hearings on a controversial plan by Newfoundland-based power company, Fortis, Inc., to build a 50-metre high dam in the rainforest of this tiny Central American country.

In a packed courtroom in Belize City yesterday, Chief Justice Abdullah Conteh advised that work on the Chalillo hydro project be stopped until a public hearing is held. “The public, I think, has a right to be heard,” said Conteh, “. . . if the inclusive and democratic process is to mean anything, especially on such a project as the Chalillo dam, with its admittedly wide-ranging ramifications.”

Justice Conteh called the environmental lawsuit, brought by a coalition of environmental groups known as BACONGO, "unique" and praised BACONGO for defending the public interest.

BACONGO argued that Fortis’ environmental assessment, which was paid for by the Canadian International Development Agency, was incomplete and rushed through a government-dominated committee without the benefit of public hearings required by Belizean law.

“Fortis and its government partners tried to bulldoze Belize’s laws,” said Sharon Matola, a leading biologist and BACONGO member.  “This decision moves us closer to putting things right.”

BACONGO intends to appeal the ruling, nonetheless, arguing that the judgment did not go far enough.

According to court documents, the government-led committee found that the CIDA report did not contain essential studies on rainfall patterns, wildlife, and archaeological sites. But the report was approved in two days after Belize's Prime Minister declared on national television that he hoped to influence the committee's decision.

The US$28-million project has generated controversy in Belize for the last two years due to concerns that it will lead to increased electricity rates and drown irreplaceable wildlife habitat.

The country's first major environmental lawsuit has drawn support from prominent North American environmentalists, including David Suzuki, actor Harrison Ford, and Robert Kennedy Jr.

British and Central American scientists have warned the dam will destroy rare habitat for jaguar, tapir, and a sub-species of scarlet macaw.

Fortis, Inc., is a majority owner of Belize’s electric utility and the private company that wants to build the Chalillo dam.

For more information, CONTACT:

Gráinne Ryder, Policy Director, Probe International, Toronto
(416) 964-9223, ext. 228

Jacob Scherr, Director, International Programs, NRDC,
Washington DC (202) 289-2367  

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