Belize PM Stands by Controversial Dam Project
Wed Dec 3, 1:29 PM ET

By Gideon Long

LONDON (Reuters) - Belize's prime minister on Wednesday defended a dam-building scheme that environmentalists say would destroy one of the largest undisturbed wildernesses in Central America.

Said Musa said the hydroelectric project approved by his government had been subjected to rigorous environmental tests and was vital to the future of his Caribbean coastal nation. 

"This issue has been subjected to many battles," Musa told reporters and diplomats at a meeting in London. 

"Environmental groups challenged the viability of the project in the High Court in Belize, where they lost," he said. 

"They then went to the court of appeal, where they lost again because the court was fully satisfied the environmental assessment had been properly done. 

"Now they've appealed to the Privy Council." 

The Privy Council, which dates from the Middle Ages and is one of the oldest institutions in Britain, is considering a last-ditch appeal by environmentalists against the project. 

The Council acts as a final court of appeal for some Commonwealth countries, including former British colony Belize. It could make a decision on the dam as early as Thursday. 

The 50-meter (165-ft) high dam is being built by a local subsidiary of Canadian multinational Fortis on the Macal River in southern Belize, a nation of just 270,000 people sandwiched between Mexico and Guatemala. 

Environmentalists say flooding the area will destroy the habitat of jaguars, tapirs and rare scarlet macaws. 

"This damn heralds a catastrophic dawn for one of Belize's most precious natural treasures," Ute Collier, dams specialist at international environmental group WWF, said in a statement. 

"An unblemished wilderness teeming with exotic flora and fauna risks being razed to the ground and flushed from the face of the earth." 

Campaigners say the official assessment of the environmental impact of the dam, carried out by British construction firm AMEC, was flawed. They accuse AMEC of failing to carry out adequate studies of the river. 

AMEC refutes the charges, saying its studies were thorough and fair, and stresses that it did not make the final decision to build the dam. 

Prime Minister Musa said Belize needs the dam to guarantee itself an independent source of electricity. 

This is the first environmental case ever heard in the long history of the Privy Council, set up in the early Middle Ages to advise the kings and queens of England on matters of state. 

The Council's judicial committee, consisting of five British Lords, will make a ruling on the legality of the Chalillo dam project following a two-day hearing which ends on Thursday. 

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