National Geographic Online News
June 7, 2002

Belize Dam Fight Heats Up as Court Prepares to Rule

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This summer, a Supreme Court justice in Belize will decide the fate of the remote Macal River Valley, a pristine rain forest that is among the most ecologically diverse on the planet— home to one of the largest jaguar populations in Central America. It is the only known Belizean nesting site for the rare scarlet macaw, and shelters tapirs, howler monkeys and a host of other threatened and endangered creatures. The fate of ancient, unexcavated Mayan settlements dating from the fifth century also hang in the balance. 

On June 10, the court will begin hearings on two lawsuits filed by a coalition of environmental and business groups challenging the government's approval of a U.S. $30 million hydroelectric dam by Fortis, Inc. of Newfoundland, Canada. The suits charge that the project will destroy crucial habitat and raise electric bills by passing construction costs to customers. Two years ago Fortis purchased Belize Electric, the national power utility.

Photograph courtesy of Belize Zoo

"This is one of the worst boondoggles I've ever seen in nearly two decades as an environmental lawyer," said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an environmental lawyer with the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "It's will make a few Canadian businessmen wealthier and impoverish the people of Belize for a generation. This is globalization at its worst." 

Fortis CEO Stanley Marshall disagrees. "This dam provides the most economical power available for Belize." But on "Disclosure," a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation production, he admitted that Chalillo would "not necessarily lower electricity rates." 

The dam has ignited a firestorm of controversy. More than a dozen advocacy groups in the U.S., Canada, and Belize organized a letter-writing campaign that delivered tens of thousands of opposition faxes and e-mails to Fortis, with celebrities like Harrison Ford lending their names to the cause. 

NRDC joined the fight two years ago, adding the Macal River to its list of "biogems," environmentally critical regions threatened by development. 

It's gotten nasty, with Belizean newspapers calling the NRDC and opponents of the project lawbreakers and terrorists. The government would like the whole controversy over, according to Robert Leslie, Secretary to the Cabinet. "Some people want the entire country to become a zoo," he said. "We are simply trying to get electricity to people who don't have an ice cube's chance in hell of getting it. But if the courts say we stop construction of the dam, we will respect that decision." 

Supporters argue that the dam is needed to feed an existing dam during the dry season and to ease dependence on Mexico, which supplies one third of the nation's electricity. John Briceno, Belizean minister of natural resources, is concerned because their current agreement expires in 2008. 

The dam won't resolve energy problems, and environmentalists feel that there are better alternatives, like buying off-peak Mexican electricity or using sugar cane for cogeneration. 

The Chalillo Dam was proposed in the early 1990s, when a feasibility study warned against environmental damage. More recently, a study funded by the Canadian government buried recommendations by the Natural History Museum in London that the project be dropped, placing it in an appendix to their 1,500-page report. 

The Belizean government gave conditional approval in November. "As far as the government is concerned, we have given permission for the project to start. There are a few little glitches here that can be ironed out as time goes on," said Leslie. 

Environmentalists say that the cost is too high—environmentally and financially. "[Fortis's] contract with the Belizean government guarantees 15 to 20 percent profit per year and doesn't even require them to produce energy," said Kennedy. "It will be the highest priced energy in Latin America." 

Probe International and the NRDC say that people downstream from the dam would be threatened. According to Ari Hershowitz, director of NRDC's Biogems Program, Fortis's geological studies state that the site was granite, when it's really sandstone and shale. "The worst case scenario: The dam breaks, floods communities downstream and kills people." Fortis's contract guarantees that they can sell the dam to the government for $1 without liability, he adds. 

Marshall argues that there is a proper foundation for the dam, and that the company's biological and geological assessments meet international standards. 

But the animals have received the most attention. The dam would fracture the Mesoamerican Wildlife Corridor, a rain forest tract stretching from Mexico to Panama, established to protect migration routes and breeding grounds for wild cats, migratory birds, and other animals, said Sharon Matola, founder of the Belize Zoo and a principal in the lawsuit. 

The valley is one of the only known nesting sites for a subspecies of scarlet macaw which numbers under 100 individuals in Belize—and is the best habitat for jaguars, who roam 40 miles a day to hunt. 

"This is the cradle for biodiversity in Central America, and arguably the wildest place left in the region," said Matola. "Trading off millions of years of biological evolution for a hydro scheme which, at best, would last 50 years, is an environmental crime of the highest degree." 

This is the country's first-ever environmental lawsuit. "Belize's environmental laws have never been tested," said Hershowitz. A ruling on the two suits is expected around mid-July. But even then this fight may not be over. 



© 2002 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.


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