Canada under fire over dam

Ottawa agency complicit in Belize plan that will endanger local people and environment, writes Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Dec. 2, 2003. 01:00 AM

As Paul Martin prepares to take the reins as Canada's new prime minister in Ottawa this month, Canada's current foreign environmental policies will be on trial in London.

Tomorrow, a panel of five Privy Councillors, Britain's highest court of appeal, will hear a case brought by Belizean environmentalists and business owners against the approval of Canadian-backed plans to build a 50-metre-high concrete hydroelectric dam in the rainforests of this small Central American country.

If completed, the Chalillo dam would not only flood one of the world's most important wilderness areas and drown irreplaceable traces of the ancient Maya civilization, but will put 12,000 people living downstream at risk.

The project sponsor, Newfoundland-based Fortis, Inc., monopoly owner of Belize's electricity utility, has close ties to the governments in Ottawa and Newfoundland, and just bought up distribution utilities in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

Two years ago, Fortis rammed approval of the project through using a flawed environmental assessment that was secretly paid for by Canada's foreign aid arm, the Canadian International Development Agency.

This deal was part of CIDA's private-sector branch "CIDA, Inc.," whose real mission appears to be "poverty" —alleviation for some of Canada's largest and most powerful companies — the Halliburtons of Canada.

In papers submitted to the court, Fortis now admits that the taxpayer-sponsored report was wrong about the geological foundations underpinning the dam.

The report said the dam would be built on solid granite, when, in fact, the site is made of fractured sandstones and shales — a dam designed on the basis of the CIDA report could collapse and cause disaster downstream.

When CIDA, Inc. was confronted with this, and other flaws in its report, last year on CBC's Disclosure, the agency denied it did anything wrong.

Now the dam is under construction, and the consequences of CIDA's flawed assessment are becoming evident.

The low flow of the river, reaching just knee deep in the rainy season, makes it apparent that the dam will not provide a fraction of the electricity CIDA's report projects.

Contractors at the site have found no granite at the site to crush as an ingredient to make concrete for the dam.

In addition, locals say that seismic tremors caused a 20-metre deep gaping hole to open at the site, and construction workers drilled through to water flowing underground.

Experts warn that this could drain the dam's reservoir before it is filled.

And, most troubling, the continued uncertainty about the dam's foundations has raised the spectre of dam collapse, and potential liability for Fortis and the Canadian government. Regrettably, CIDA continues to bury its head in the sand, and Fortis seems undeterred.

That's because Fortis seems to be protected.

A 50-year contract with the Belizean government guarantees the company at least $200 million U.S. in electricity sales from the dam, by forcing the dam's high costs onto Belizean ratepayers.

Already, Belizeans pay the highest electricity rates of any country in Central America — nearly two times more than their neighbours in Guatemala or Mexico, even though half of their electricity is imported at low cost from Mexico.

Tomorrow, the Privy Council will be asked to stop the dam's construction until proper studies are completed and Belizeans' right to a fair and impartial public hearing is upheld.

But Canada should not wait for the Privy Council's decision to live up its responsibilities and repudiate past mistakes.

"Poverty alleviation" should not be a cloak for lopsided contracts that provide huge profits to a Canadian company and endanger and further impoverish the people of Belize.

The new prime minister will be off to a good start if his minister for international development ends CIDA's complicity with Fortis, recalls its flawed taxpayer-sponsored report and works to protect the people of Belize, as well as the tapirs, scarlet macaws and jaguars that are at risk from this unjustifiable dam.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is an environment activist and author whose articles have appeared in The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, the Washington Post and numerous other publications.


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