Redefining Progress: The Chalillo Dam and the Adverse Effects of Modernization

December, 2002

Article written by Ryan Mack, student at the University of California, Santa Cruz and NRDC intern.  This project was completed as part of a research seminar in conjunction with the UCDC program during Fall, 2002.

           In a world where industrialized countries control global economics and politics, it is not uncommon for progress to be equated with modernization.  Unfortunately, this comparison often occurs with little regard for the havoc these changes might wreak upon the natural world.  Furthermore, advocates of modernization and industrialization often overlook the economic and social importance that the natural world plays in everyday life at the expense of short-term financial gain.  In the pages that follow, the proposed construction of the Chalillo Dam in Belize will be utilized to illustrate these very ideas. 

           The site for constructing the Chalillo Dam is located in the Macal River Valley, one of the most bio-diverse regions of our planet.  At the heart of the matter is whether or not the electricity generated by the dam would compensate for the loss of this region.  Advocates for the dam claim that it will provide more electricity at cheaper rates and alleviate poverty.  In addition, it will lessen Belize’s dependence on Mexico for oil and electricity.

But there is a flipside to this issue as well.  Those countering the above claims point to environmental degradation, loss of tourism and the fact that the dam might very well benefit the corporations constructing it rather than the people of Belize.  Does modernization and development automatically translate to social benefits?  Furthermore, does environmental preservation necessarily pit humans versus the natural world, or can they both benefit?  The argument of this paper will be that indeed, humans can derive valuable social benefits from environmental preservation, and that often modernization and development are falsely portrayed as mediums of improving life.  In fact, modernization and development can sometimes lead to the destruction of humans as well as the environment.

            Construction of dams is certainly not a new phenomenon.  In fact, it is a rather out-dated method if one stops to examine recent trends in development.  In the global community it is practically common knowledge that dams are a thing of the past.  Dam construction is today far less frequent and even non-existent in most industrialized nations.1  Even The New York Times noted that the “United States is rethinking its dam system…”2 And for good reason.  The United States’ dam system has decimated its salmon population in the Northwest3 and helped lead to the unfortunate trend of nuclear power plant construction.   Destructive floods and consequently the submersion of millions of acres of land underwater have also resulted from the United States’ love affair with dams. 4 

Beyond the U.S., dams have been responsible for numerous environmental atrocities.  Rivers accumulate a variety of nutrients from soil and vegetation along their shores, which are eventually emptied into the oceans.  The oceans serve as a collection and storage facility for much of this decomposed material, now in the form of carbon dioxide.  At times, it is possible for fifty times the amount of carbon dioxide to be stored in the oceans than the atmosphere.5  As one might imagine, damming a river affects not just the natural flow of the water, but also the accumulation of nutrients in its current.  This can lead to the sedimentation of almost 90% of organic matter behind the dam wall.6 

There are numerous detrimental effects arising from this.  Firstly, there are examples of rivers such as the Nile and the Colorado that are often unable to finish their course to the oceans, causing chaos for all living species downriver (humans included).  The loss of nutrients flowing to ocean has been linked to climate change as well.  Ocean plankton is essential in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and this plankton relies upon the flow of sediments from rivers to receive the appropriate nutrients.7

            The accumulation of sediments also causes the levels of rivers to rise, which could eventually cause the collapse of a dam when the level has exceeded the maximum capacity.  In fact “overtopping,” as it is termed, is one of the most common reasons for dam failures.8  This does not occur over geologic time either.  The effects can be seen in some dams in less than 20 years.  In addition to carbon dioxide accumulation, dams are also responsible for a large percentile of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the world.  Dams and reservoirs are purported to produce one-fifth of the total methane emissions (one of the most destructive of the greenhouse gases).9 

            The World Commission on Dams (WCD) has released a study entitled “Dams and Development.”  In this study, the commission concluded that even though “dams have made an important contribution to human development, and benefits derived from them have been considerable…in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment.”10

            The report also went on to state that large dams have forced 40-80 million people from their homes and lands, and these people have suffered not only economic consequences, but also mental and physical anguish.  Among these are health problems stemming from displacement and the loss of family and community due to large-scale flooding.11  The World Bank admits that of 50 dams that it has funded, a mere 13 have been deemed acceptable when human rights were considered.12  The WCD report also contains evidence proving that large dams have failed to produce the amount of electricity that was previously predicted, while causing the “extinction of many fish and other aquatic species, huge losses of forest, wetlands and farmland.”13

            Yet another example exists in neighboring Guatemala, where the Chixoy dam, built in the 1980’s, never produced more than 70% of its predicted capabilities.14  Then end result was massive foreign debt for Guatemala, which is especially unnerving considering that the dam is only expected to be serviceable for approximately 20 years!15 Due to a riverbed that consists of mainly soft sandstone, silt has been accumulating rapidly.  The company that built the dam erroneously thought that they were building on a solid granite foundation.  Unfortunately, the geology of the region consisted of faults and cavities.  Even a minor earthquake could cause the whole dam to collapse and flood the surrounding areas.  Furthermore, the Guatemalan military allegedly massacred 400 people to gain access for the dam site.16  Swissboring (the company responsible for approving the geology of the site in Guatemala) was implicated in serious human rights abuses.  This same company is claiming that the geology of the Chalillo site is safe for building as well.17

            The rationale for constructing Chalillo appears straightforward at first, as long as one remains completely unaware of the above-mentioned dam-related catastrophes.  Belize relies heavily upon Mexico as a source of electricity.  Building the dam, proponents claim, will help to wean Belize off its dependence on Mexico and help Belize produce its own electricity.  This would be especially important since it appears Mexico might be encountering its own struggles to keep electricity flowing.  Some experts have predicted that Mexico could incur blackouts by 2004 if it does not receive adequate American investment.18

            Dam proponents argue the issue is also about bringing development and modern conveniences to the people of Belize.  In the words of Belizean Prime Minister Said Musa, “Chalillo means expanding electricity to the most remote village…it means power to our industries.  It means power for development.”19  However this line of reasoning has stirred up a good deal of controversy. 

Meb Cutlack, writing in the Reporter, points out that it is futile for Belize to hope that they might develop to the same level as the United States, Canada and Western Europe.  Those areas provide prime examples of environmental destruction during and after their industrial revolutions and is still felt today in the lack of biodiversity, deforestation, acid rain and clouds of smog hovering over their industrial centers.  Cutlack points to Belize’s healthy tourism industry, which enables the local populations to produce agricultural goods, livestock, and fuel their fishing industry.  The country is able to grow what it needs to care for itself and sell surplus goods to tourists.20

Dependency theory is relevant here as well.  This would imply that Belize could achieve the same level modernization by simply following the footsteps of the industrialized nations.  Unfortunately, Belize has no other countries to exploit, as did many of the developed countries. And if they do develop, they will do so at the expense of their great national treasure, environmental richness and biodiversity.  That is a rarity amongst industrialized countries and would be a severe blow to the people of Belize as well as the entire planet.

The dams would be built and owned by Fortis International, a Canadian corporation that currently possesses 95% ownership of Belize Electricity Co. Ltd. (BECOL) and 67% ownership in BEL (Belize Electricity Ltd.)21  Having a virtual monopoly on electrical production and distribution has created warranted skepticism amongst many opponents.  But regardless of ownership, proponents claim that the new dam will alleviate the high electrical costs of importing power from Mexico. 

Yet this is where the argument for both sides becomes murky.  Both sides constantly counter one another with predictions that future electricity rates will drop or skyrocket.  The end result has been a number game played by both sides that only serves to confuse any non-mathematician.  What we do have is two testimonials from Said Musa (Prime Minister of Belize) and Fortis/BEL CEO Stanley Marshal.  Prime Minister Musa maintains that the government of Belize “understands that prices will start going down very shortly.”22  However when Stanley Marshall was asked the same question, he replied that rates will “not necessarily” go down.  He went on to explain that new rates, under new methods of supplying electricity, actually cause the price of electricity to become more expensive, at least in this case.23

Government spokesperson Norris Hall writes of his concern to alleviate poverty, as well as to “attract more investment and industry” the hopes of creating more jobs for Belizeans.24 Yet Fortis’ Environmental Impact Assessment promises to provide a mere 12 jobs for the people of Belize.25  Yet another key argument in support of the dam has been that it will boost electrical output by adding enough water and energy to supplement the Mollejon dam, which is dry and non-productive for months at a time.26  In addition, Kimo Jolly, a local engineer completed a study of the proposed Chalillo Dam initiative.  He concluded that additional water storage at Chalillo would make Mollejon more productive, “but only during off-peak hours.”27  Sharon Matola, a local biologist and conservationist in Belize, revealed from her interviews with government spokesman Norris Hall that Chalillo is just another step in their plan to build a third dam later on in order to produce even greater amounts of electricity.28 

But at what cost?  One dam, as we have seen, can produce devastating effects on the environment and surrounding peoples.  With few pristine areas left on the globe, the Chalillo Dam site represents one of the few untouched natural areas left on the planet.  Its biodiversity is rivaled by few areas and includes more than seven percent of the plants and animals living on earth!29  The Macal River area (site of construction for the Chalillo Dam) is home to numerous endangered species, including the scarlet macaw, jaguar, Morelet’s crocodile, and the Central American tapir (a relative of both the horse and rhinoceros).30  This area is one of the only remaining areas inhabited by the tapir and fewer than 200 of this particular species of the Scarlet Macaw are still in existence.31 The tapir is not only endangered, but also reportedly plays a role in seed dispersal, helping the local ecosystems maintain their biodiversity.32 

The environmental impact assessment, conducted by the Natural History Museum of London, found that the Chalillo Dam would cause “significant and irreversible reduction of biological diversity” by flooding the more than 1,000 square acres of rich land.33  This area is vital to the continued health of the Scarlet Macaw, as it provides a source of fresh water, nutrients and shelter to aid in raising their young.  These animals also require an extensive amount of territory, and the dam will cause a significant loss of habitat for the macaw.   Furthermore, the dam is located next to the only existing jaguar reserve in the world and could severely encroach upon their habitat.34

Too often the species of this world disappear at an alarming rate, while humans remain ignorant and indifferent to their disappearance and the consequences that come back to haunt us all.  As with the construction of dams, we often never realize what enormous consequences our actions can have upon the environment.  Humans have isolated themselves at such a distance from the natural world that they often forget that they are dependent upon it for their own survival.  The extinction of various plant and animal species may have unprecedented consequences that were never considered until too late.  This is a risk that all species of the earth cannot afford to take, economically, socially, environmentally and for the sake of their own lives. 

As if natural wonders were not enough to save, several Mayan ruins were recently discovered in the vicinity of the Chalillo Dam area.35  These ruins could provide archaeologists and historians alike with valuable information about past civilizations, while at the same time providing an additional tourist attraction.  If the dam is constructed, the ruins and the forests will be submerged under more than ten feet of water. 

Even more unnerving is the fact that the dam is planned to be built upon a bed of quartz and sandstone, not granite, as had been previously reported.36  This is bad news for a dam site, as this provides a much less stable bed for the construction of the dam.  Additionally, the soft sandstone will undoubtedly allow a greater volume of sediments to build up, shortening the life of the dam.  This practically ensures that the dam will have to undergo decommissioning, continually emit greenhouse gases, or possibly collapse due to the soft bed.  In addition to the instability of the construction site is the fact that a major fault has also been located one kilometer to the west of the dam site.37  The risks of this are so blatantly obvious (and frightening) that one wonders how Fortis and the Belizean Government can even consider constructing on the site, given the implications for disaster. 

This leads us to the fact that the construction of the Chalillo Dam would not only produce severe consequences for the environment, but also for society in general.  If the Chalillo Dam is constructed, the people of Belize will be forced to decide how they wish to deal with the issue.  At some point they will either have to decommission the dam, which is an extremely expensive process, or continue releasing harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere indefinitely (or until collapse).  As Patrick McCully writes, “just turning off a hydropower plant will not halt the emissions (of greenhouse gases) from its reservoir.”  Thus, “filling a hydropower reservoir behind a dam…commits society either to the potentially huge costs of dam decommissioning, or to creating a source of greenhouse gas emissions for the indefinite future regardless of what advances may occur in the development of cleaner power sources.”38 

There are also other consequences resulting from the construction of the Chalillo Dam.  As mentioned earlier, Fortis owns a majority in BECOL and BEL.  For that reason, Fortis makes no significant economic contribution to the people of Belize.  They have a monopoly of power and signed a contract with the government to extend its ownership of the dam an additional 15 years past the previous transfer date.  This means a Canadian company will maintain a monopoly over production and distribution of energy and reap the benefits of these profits for approximately the next 50 years.39

One of the major problems with the dam proposal is that the people of Belize are yet to be consulted by ballot or any sort of public forum about their stance on the issue.  Furthermore, alternative sources of energy are being ignored.  Some of these would produce electricity in more sustainable way, while at the same time keeping the revenues within Belize. 

Chalillo is estimated to produce 8 megawatts of power.  Bagasse, which is the burning of sugarcane biomass to produce energy, is speculated to produce 30 megawatts of power.40  Those supporting bagasse claim that is “completely Belizean” and “renewable,” as Belize already produces sugarcane.41  For that reason, utilizing bagasse for power would be supportive of local sugarcane farmers and help bolster that section of the economy.  Burning of biomass also produces about half the greenhouse gases that a dam would emit over time.  This “keeps Belize dollars at home and buffers (Belize) from the vagaries of world oil prices.”42

In Guatemala, cogeneration (the use of bagasse in conjunction with traditional diesel burning plants) has proven to be an affordable method of generating electricity for the population.43  In addition, the World Bank also recently created a $120 million fund for biomass projects currently being set up in other countries.44  For Belize, it is still unclear whether or not bagasse is the answer for the current problem.  But the government is yet to even consider alternative such as the burning of biomass.  Guatemala provides a solid example, but the issue should be explored further before any assumptions are made.  However, dam construction should also be halted until other alternatives (especially those not detrimental to the people and environment of Belize) have been investigated and the true effects of dam construction considered. 

In this case dams are viewed as tools of modernization.  Theoretically, they might bring electricity to the 18,000 Belizeans lacking certain amenities that are taken for granted in many industrialized countries.  But we must examine this in terms of cost and benefit.  Only cost and benefit cannot be solely determined in economic terms.  Already, decomposing vegetation has begun to pollute the waters of the Macal River, an important area for numerous endangered species.  At the same time humans utilize this water for drinking, bathing, washing, cooking and a part of their livelihood.  Will modernizing these people’s lives create a more advanced civilization and a higher standard of living for these people?  A resounding “NO” is the answer to that question.  Electricity and modern amenities may provide something new, but it will come at the cost of clean drinking water and vegetation, as well as causing irreversible damage to the area. 

What is not understood is that many people of the world depend directly upon the natural environment for making their living.  They have done this by maintaining a more symbiotic relationship with their surrounding environment.  This is something that the industrialized world has lost completely.  If the rest of the “developing” world follows our patterns of development, it is not unlikely that it will be at the expense of the health of every species (including humans) upon this planet.  It is time that we began redefining “modernization” and “progress.”  We are a part of the natural world and we must not lose sight of this.  The greater our isolation from these connections, the closer we come to our own destruction.


1  “Abandon Chalillo: A statement by the Belize Ecotourism Association.” Amandala, August 12, 2001, p. 23.

2  David Gonzalez.  “Upbeat Plan for a Dam in Belize Turns Nasty.” The New York Times, March 2, 2001, p. A6.

3  Gonzalez, p. A6.

4  Marc Reisner.  Cadillac Desert.  New York: Penguin Books, 1986, 1993.

5 Patrick McCully.  Flooding the Land, Warming the Earth: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Dams.  Portland: International Rivers Network, June 2002, p. 10.

6 McCully, p. 10.

7 McCully, p. 10.

8 McCully, p. 17.

9  Vincent St. Louis.  Bioscience, September 2000.

10 Dams and Development: The Report of the World Commission on Dams.  London and Sterling, VA: Earthscans Publications Ltd., November 2000.

11 Dams and Development: The Report of the World Commission on Dams. 

12 Sharon Matola.  “Staying Transparent: The Chalillo Dam Issue.”  The Guardian, March 10, 1999.

13 McCully, p. 4.

14 Meb Cutlack.  “Wrong About Chalillo Geology!”  The Reporter, January 27, 2002, p. 18.

15 Cutlack, p. 18

16 Cutlack, p. 18.

17 Cutlack, p. 18.

18 Adele Ramos.  “BEL and PUC both confirm 15-year extension for hydro agreement.”  Amandala, January 27, 2002.

19 “Musa defends Chalillo.”  Reporter, June 30, 2002.

20 Meb Cutlack.  “The dam debate.”  Reporter, June 30, 2002.

21 Pat Doyle.  “Macal River dam ‘vital’ to eradicating poverty.”  The Belize Times, June 3, 2001.

22 “Dam Canadians.” Disclosure, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

23 “Dam Canadians.”

24 Norris Hall.  “Belize’s Development and Eco-Realism.”  The Belize Times, June 3, 2001.

25“Stan! The Smiling CEO of Fortis/BEL.”  Reporter, December 16, 2001.

26 Gonzalez, p. A6.

27“Engineer bashes Chalillo.”  Reporter, May 2, 1999.

28 Sharon Matola.  “Chalillo is not the answer! Too little, at too big a cost.”  Reporter, October 24, 1999, p. 23.

29  Matola, p. 23.

30  “World Conservation Congress Condemns Chalillo Dam Project.”  Reporter, August 13, 2000, p. 13.

31 “World Conservation Congress Condemns Chalillo Dam Project.”  P. 13.

32 “Tales from Belize.”  Living Wild, National Geographic Video, 2001.

33  Harrison Ford.  “Canada’s dark side in Belize.”  The Globe and Mail, September 20, 2001,p. A11.

34“Canadian Company Plans to Flood Rainforest.” NRDC Campaign website.

35 Sharon Matola.  “Ancient Mayan sites found in Raspaculo River Basin.”  Reporter, April 9, 2000. 

36 Meb Cutlack.  “Chalillo a no-go.”  Reporter, December 23, 2001, p. 1. 

37 Cutlack, p. 3.

38 Mcully, p. 13.

39 “15-year giveaway.”  Reporter, January 20, 2002, p. 3.

40 “The Real Truth on Electricity, Mollejon and Chalillo.”  Reporter, April 25, 2001, p. 23.

41 William Ysaguirre.  “Electricity from bagasse-sweet sound of success?”  Reporter, June 25, 2000, p. 11.

42 Ysaguirre, p. 12.

43 Ysaguirre, p. 12.

44  Ysaguirre, p. 12.

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