November 16, 2001
International uproar over Belize government sanction for Canadian-backed rainforest dam: plan will backfire, say environmentalists

Belize City -- Local and international environmental groups reacted strongly to an announcement by the government of Belize that plans for a controversial dam by Newfoundland-based Fortis had been conditionally approved. The coalition of groups from Belize, the United States and Canada point out that the decision is illegal in Belize, and will not hold up to challenge.  “Their attempt to steamroll our laws and public process will backfire.” said Sharon Matola, director of the Belize Zoo, and one of the dam’s earliest critics in Belize.

The government of Belize announced that the dam project had been given “environmental clearance”, following a decision last week to grant “conditional acceptance” to a report on the environmental impacts of the dam. The decision was taken by the National Environmental Appraisal Committee, and is conditioned upon preparation of a plan to manage the environmental damage that would be caused by the dam.  Belizean anti-poverty and conservation groups opposed the decision saying that it was rushed through without public hearings.

The committee’s nine government members voted to approve Fortis’ environmental impact assessment, while its two non-government members, the Association of National Development Agencies, and BACONGO (Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs), voted against. 

“This decision contravenes Belize law,” says Jamillah Vasquez, Executive Director of BACONGO, “which requires that public hearings be conducted and all submissions from scientists and concerned citizens be reviewed by the committee.”

Ms Vasquez adds that the committee dismissed the main recommendation from Fortis’ own wildlife consultants, the British Natural History Museum, that the dam should not be built because it will devastate Belize wildlife and migratory bird populations.

In a nod to critics, the committee announced that it would now hold public hearings to explain the committee’s decision.

But Ms Vasquez and other critics, say this only adds insult to injury.  

“Public hearings after the decision are not public hearings, they’re a form of propaganda.” said Candy Gonzalez, a legal advisor to BACONGO. “What’s more, the committee’s  approval of this dam without any public hearings shows a disregard for the rights of Belize citizens to due process and the rule of law.”

Local and international pressure to stop plans for the dam continues to mount, and dam critics point to this as the reason for the attempt to rush ahead with the project.

Four hundred people gathered last week in the nation’s capital, Belmopan, to protest against the dam and Fortis’ electricity monopoly, which has Belizeans paying three times what Canadians pay for electricity.  Shortly afterward, the opposition United Democratic Party announced that it was against the dam in its party platform.

In Toronto earlier this month, Canadian environmentalists, including Newfoundland’s popular political satirist Greg Malone, were joined by prominent environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr., and groups from Belize, to protest Canada’s involvement.

“Fortis could never get clearance for such an environmentally damaging hydro scheme in Newfoundland,” says Grainne Ryder of Toronto-based Probe International.  Ms Ryder’s group originally exposed the role of CIDA in subsidizing the project. “By attempting to ram this dam through in Belize, Fortis will run into more protests at home and in Belize until its shareholders come to their senses.”

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