Maclean's Magazine
August 27, 2001

Power to the People?

Canadians want to build a dam in Belize. Not everyone's pleased.


Photo: Birgit Freybe Bateman
Artist Bateman dismisses that argument, saying dams aren't worth the resulting destruction.

The dense jungle of the Macal River Valley in western Belize is among the most ecologically diverse on the planet. It is home to the tapir, the floppy-nosed ancient relative of the horse, and the rare scarlet macaw, one of the largest and noisiest members of the parrot family. The Macal River also sustains the 800 villagers of Cristo Rey, who fish and drink its waters. But now, they fear the river is about to be destroyed -- and they blame a Canadian company, which, with Ottawa's help, is planning to dam the Macal, a project that would submerge two ancient Mayan settlements -- and a way of life. "It's just a pity," says Robert Bateman, the renowned Canadian artist and naturalist who has twice visited the region. "To think that a Canadian company would be involved in this dam." 

Bateman is not alone. Other international celebrities, including actor Harrison Ford, are also lending their voices to the growing opposition to the $50-million dam, which will stand 35 m high and stretch nearly 350 m in length. Proponents of the project, including St. John's, Nfld.-based Fortis Inc., which in 1999 bought Belize's electrical utility and plans to finance and build the dam, say the power it would generate could help alleviate poverty, attract foreign investment and reduce the country's dependence on imported oil from neighbouring Mexico. But Bateman dismisses those arguments, claiming dams are no longer a panacea for economic growth. "I'd thought we'd woken up to the fact that dams aren't worth the money that's put into them," says Bateman, "and definitely not worth the destruction that results." 

Photo: Joe Gibbons for Maclean's
Fortis's Marshall says the project could help relieve poverty. 

The Canadian International Development Agency is also facing criticism. It helped get the project off the ground by paying almost $250,000 to a Toronto engineering company to prepare a project justification report and environmental impact assessment. Despite pressure from environmental groups, CIDA officials have so far failed to make any documents surrounding the assessment public. And in May in the House of Commons, Canadian Alliance MP Keith Martin, official opposition critic for Latin America, questioned why CIDA funded the assessment in the first place and asked the government to block what he called an "environmental catastrophe." 

Nestled between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize is about a fifth of the size of Newfoundland, with a population of 250,000. The almost 1,000-hectare area that would be flooded by the dam is accessible only by foot and is one of the last undisturbed tropical floodplains in Central America. But more than plants and animals would be affected. Two Mayan ruins, which contain ancient pyramids and temples, would also be submerged if the dam is built. One of the sites, which has been featured in a National Geographic television documentary, is located about 19 km from the dam. The second, farther upriver, may have served as a strategic lookout point for Mayan warriors protecting villages. 

In Cristo Rey, not far from the Mayan ruins, Jose, a villager who was too afraid of government reprisals to reveal his last name, told Maclean's he is deeply worried about the havoc the dam could wreak on his valley. In 1995, he said, another dam was built 18 km downriver from the proposed site of the new dam. Since then, Jose said, water levels have dropped dramatically and many residents of the village have developed skin rashes after bathing in the river. "We didn't experience rashes until after the dam was built," he said. "There's algae on the water and it stinks a lot." 

The Belize government is expected to issue final approval for construction early next year. A write-in protest has resulted in more than 20,000 letters and e-mails being sent to the company. With 2,500 employees and nearly $1.5 billion in assets, Fortis owns, or has a major holding in, six electrical utilities located in Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, the United States, Ontario and the Cayman Islands. And in 1999 it purchased controlling interest in Belize Electricity Ltd., which had proposed building the dam. Now, Fortis chief executive Stanley Marshall says, "Fortis won't bow to pressure groups who are looking out more for their own self-interests than for the people of Belize." 

While the Belizean government and Fortis say resistance to the dam is coming mainly from foreigners and expatriates living in the country, domestic opposition to the project appears to be growing. Residents living in the threatened region have formed the Coalition of Concerned Citizens because, they say, Belize Electricity hasn't made enough information public. But many Belizeans are scared to speak out openly against the project, says Belize resident Jonathan Lohr, co-ordinator for the coalition. "A lot of people are cautious about how they affiliate with us," he says. "They're scared they'll get politically blacklisted and that they will never get political favours in the future. And that's a big thing in Belize." 

Even some former employees of Belize Electricity believe the project should not go ahead. While working as a senior planner at the company, Ambrose Tillett concluded that the dam was not the best solution for the country. Belize has an extensive sugarcane industry and, Tillett says, burning the waste vegetation in a thermal generating station would be both better for the environment and produce more energy. Last October, Belize Electricity asked Tillett to leave the company, citing "philosophical differences." He is now a technical consultant for the Belize Alliance of Conservation and Non-Governmental Organizations, because, he says, "they need someone to cut through the bull____." 

Like debates over dams throughout the world, the battle in Belize has evolved into a war of words -- each side accuses the other of using misleading facts, and both say they have the support of the Belizean public. In Cristo Rey, meanwhile, many in the community remain deeply suspicious. "We're not scientists, we're not technological people," says Jose. "But we are concerned about what will happen in the future." 

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