August 7, 2005
Fortis' Dam Is Built But May Never Fill:
Tapirs wander through burnt forest, bills for poorest Belizeans rise 50%

Fortis’ dam is now built and a huge area behind it has been burned by Fortis in anticipation of the flooding that may never come.  In an email to friends,  a Belizean researcher and guide relates his firsthand account of a lone, disoriented tapir walking through this bleak landscape.  There is some hope in this heartbreaking story that the dam will remain dry and the valley, though scarred, will recover over time.

As the photos show, there is little water in the river, though Belize is now in the midst of its rainy season.  As experts had warned--the lack of rain and the limestone caves upstream of the dam may ensure that the dam never fills or produces electricity for Belize: a US$30 million boondoggle.  Chalillo was built on the claim by Belize’s cynical government officials and Fortis that the dam is needed to produce power for the country’s poor.  To pay for this fiasco, Fortis’ subsidiary in Belize has raised electricity rates, which were already the highest in Central America.  Belizeans will now pay an average of 20 cents US per kilowatt-hour—an increase of 12% overall, and 50% for the poorest families— or stop using electricity altogether.  By comparison, their neighbors in Mexico and Guatemala pay about 6 cents per kilowatt-hour and Fortis’ Canadian customers pay 4 cents.

Some of the Commonwealth’s most respected judges on the Privy Council accepted the government’s argument by a vote of 3 to 2.  These judges apparently found it hard to believe that a government would deceive and impoverish its people to enrich a foreign company and a few well-placed individuals.

This area was once the wildest place in Central America, one of the few undisturbed homes of the Central American tapir, and the only nesting area in Belize for a subspecies of scarlet macaw numbering fewer than 500.  After their court victory, Fortis and the Belizean government have refused to tell Belizeans what is happening behind the dam.  Reports have leaked out of the area describing the destruction of all the macaw nesting sites and poaching of wildlife by hundreds of foreign workers who were brought in to build the dam.  Despite this, and the economic disaster that Chalillo represents for ordinary Belizeans, Fortis is now proposing a third dam on the Macal River, at Vaca Falls, downstream from the Chalillo.  The story, it seems, is far from over.

Return to the home page...

Website Development by...