UK judges to rule on rainforest dam


Thursday, January 29, 2004

THE fate of "one of the most pristine and fragile habitats in Central America" will be decided today by Britain’s Privy Council - more than 4,000 miles away from the disputed area.

Conservationists claim the 50-metre high Chalillo Dam planned for the Macal River valley in Belize will destroy a vast tract of unspoilt rainforest, home to more than a dozen rare and endangered species, including jaguars, tapirs, howler monkeys and scarlet macaws.

They argue the dam project, which involves flooding nine square kilometres of rainforest, would pose a serious threat to communities living downstream and produce too little electricity to be worthwhile.

However, supporters of the hydro-electric scheme say it is the most economic option, easing the country’s reliance on Mexican energy and providing cheap electricity.

The challenge to Becol, the developers, a Belizean subsidiary of the multinational construction company Fortis, has been brought by the Belize Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (BACONGO).

Belize gained independence in 1981, but, as a Commonwealth country, chose to retain the appeal to Her Majesty in Council and the judicial committee of the Privy Council functions as the country’s court of final appeal. Made up of five judges, usually Law Lords, the committee sits in Downing Street.

The ruling, expected at 10am, is believed to be the council’s first on an
environmental dispute.

BACONGO is requesting that the council rescind the approval of the dam by the Belize government and instigate reports on both its environmental impact and safety, with construction stopped while the process takes place.

Among objections expressed to the Privy Council last December, BACONGO claimed that the agreement between the Belize government and Fortis to build the $45 million (£24.6 million) dam could drive up the cost of electricity, which would be subsidised by Belize’s ratepayers.

It also claims that the company which conducted the geological survey of the site wrongly identified the rock at the area as granite, although it is softer sandstone and shale, raising questions about the suitability of bedrock foundations, and that fault lines near the dam site were removed from maps submitted to the government.

In addition, BACONGO claims that hydrological studies of the Macal were inadequate, as, at the height of the wet season, the river’s entire flow fitted in four small pipes.

The upper Macal has been described as the epicentre of biodiversity in Belize, and zoologists believe it has a high density of large cats, including jaguars, ocelots and pumas.

It is the only known breeding ground in Belize of a rare sub-species of scarlet macaw, with 1,000 survivors worldwide.

Eighteen of the world’s leading forest experts and ecologists, as well as
scientists who have spent years studying the Macal River valley, have written warning the dam would cause significant and long-lasting impacts on the ecosystems and species of the region, and call plans reckless.

Sharon Matola, the founder of the Belize Zoo and a member of BACONGO, said:
"If the dam is built it will flood the macaws’ nesting area. That will eventually mean their extinction in Belize, because they live in holes in trees, and the trees they choose occur nowhere else in the country."

She added: "The dam won’t give energy security - it’ll produce enough power to run three large hotels."

Fortis insists species in the Macal River valley are not endangered, and the project will provide cheap electricity for thousands of people in Belize.

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