Opponents of dam take battle to TSE
Environmentalists try to save Belize forest
Kelly Toughill, Toronto Star
November 1, 2001
A fight over the future of a Central American forest is to hit the Toronto Stock Exchange today when leading environmentalists launch a new campaign against Fortis Inc.
Environmentalists in both Canada and the United States want the Newfoundland-based hydro company to scrap plans to build a dam on the Macal River, in Belize.
They say the dam will destroy one of the last wild forests in Central America, an area crucial to the survival of several rare species, including the Central American tapir, the scarlet macaw and the jaguar.
"I have been all over Central America and I have never seen an area richer in biodiversity than that valley," Sharon Matola, director of the Belize Zoo, told The Star yesterday. "I just can't believe they would do this." Matola will join Elizabeth May, director of the Sierra Club of Canada, Robert Kennedy Jr. of the Natural Resources Defence Council and other activists at the Toronto Stock Exchange to launch the new campaign designed to pressure Fortis shareholders about the dam.
The fight between Fortis and the environmentalists has been going on for almost a year. Environmentalists have already run national television ads on the topic, and newspaper ads in areas where Fortis does the most business.
Fortis owns controlling interest in the only power company in Belize. It wants to build a dam upriver from an existing dam, saying the extra power is crucial to the development of the country. The Newfoundland-based company has strong backing from the Belize
government and a new environmental assessment financed by the Canadian government.
The environmentalists have star power - a member of the famous Kennedy clan is spearheading the drive, and actor Harrison Ford, who filmed a movie in Belize, has lobbied against the dam. They also have environmental reports criticizing the dam.
Both sides accuse the other of out-and-out lying about everything from the amount of land to be flooded to the relative rarity of the species that will be affected.
"It is extremely arrogant for North American environmentalists to say we can develop these dams in our own country, but other countries cannot," said Stan Marshall, president and CEO of Fortis. "They don't want to let the people and the democratically elected government of Belize make their own decisions."
Marshall said the river valley has drawn the focus of environmentalists only because so many Americans live in Belize and because so much of the country is already protected as wilderness.
"It is a tragedy that because Belize has done such a great job of protecting the environment, now they can't develop anything because everyone thinks of the whole country as a park."
Matola said that's not true, that the river valley is unique. "You can go five kilometres on either side of it and you don't see the same biodiversity at all."
GRAPHIC: HARRISON FORD: Actor lobbies against construction of dam that could destroy a forest.
Globe and Mail
Kennedy adds clout to Belize dam protest
Economic benefits 'probably . . . zero,' he says of project in crucial rainforest
Graeme Smith, Globe and Mail
November 2, 2001
The slick multimedia presentation by Robert Kennedy in a boardroom at the Toronto Stock Exchange yesterday looked like any other Bay Street sales pitch. But rather than trying to strike a deal, Mr. Kennedy's group of environmentalists was trying to scuttle a $45-million transaction between a Newfoundland power company and the government of Belize. Fortis Inc. has been contracted to build a hydroelectric dam on the Macal River Valley near Chalillo, Belize, in January, a project that environmentalists say would flood a crucial tract of rain forest and wipe out endangered species. "The economic benefits of this project will probably be zero for the people of Belize," said Mr. Kennedy, a conservationist and son of the assassinated U.S. attorney-general. "The dam will create, at most, 12 permanent jobs."
The press conference kicked off a last-ditch advertising campaign aimed at pressing Fortis to drop the project. The environmental groups plan to spend $25,000 on print and television ads in Newfoundland and Ontario. Besides criticizing the government of Belize and Fortis, the advertisements take aim at the federal government for sponsoring an environmental assessment of the project. "Our government spent $250,000 to help ram through the project in secrecy," the newspaper ads read. The ads are part of the latest salvo in a continuing battle between supporters and opponents of the dam.
Government officials in Belize maintain that the construction is necessary to increase water flow to an existing facility downstream, to protect the area from occasional flash floods and to promote economic development. "The Macal River is not the home of the world's rarest and most endangered species," the cabinet secretary of Belize, Robert Leslie, wrote in a recent letter to The Globe and Mail. He did not return calls yesterday. "The Chalillo dam site was actually the site of a logging camp several years ago," Mr. Leslie added. "Upstream from the Chalillo site is the tropical training area for the British Army, including an area reserved for live firing."
But environmentalists cite an impact report paid for by the Canadian International Development Agency and conducted by the Natural History Museum of London, which concludes that the dam would threaten at least 12 rare or endangered species. "The project is likely to cause significant and irreversible reduction of biological diversity," the report states. Such an outcome would be tragic, environmentalists say. "There will be no resurrecting the scarlet macaw, no mouth-to-mouth for the jaguar, no saving the tapir," Newfoundland activist Greg Malone said. "They'll die."
Opponents of the dam also criticize its economics. The project will generate six or seven megawatts of electricity, they say. An alternative co-generation plan could produce hundreds of times more energy, opponents said. Co-generation would mean burning scraps of sugar cane left over from Belizean industry, they say, and would boost employment. By contrast, the dam is expected to be constructed using imported labour and generate few for Belizeans. Residents are
also concerned that Mayan ruins in the area would be flooded, said Sharon Matola, director of the Belize zoo. "This would be the cultural heritage of the country they're destroying," Ms. Matola said. "And ruins don't grow back."
Fortis disputes Kennedy claims
U.S. environmental lawyer helps launch campaign against utility's Belize project: 'Misleading information'
James McCarten, The Canadian Press
November 2, 2001
Robert Kennedy Jr. is among the high-profile critics of Fortis Inc.'s dam project in Central America. "The Belize project is inconsistent with ... the best traditions of Canada," he said in Toronto yesterday. The son of former U.S. attorney- general Robert Kennedy launched a blistering public-relations salvo at Newfoundland-based Fortis Inc. over its dam project in Central America.
Robert Kennedy Jr., a lawyer for the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council, is among those urging utility giant Fortis to abandon a planned hydroelectric dam in the Macal River Valley in Belize.
"The Belize project is inconsistent with that Canadian tradition, the best traditions of Canada," Mr. Kennedy said yesterday.
Mr. Kennedy was in Toronto to help kick off a campaign opposing the dam, which critics insist will lead to an environmental catastrophe in one of central America's last remaining tracts of pristine wilderness.
The Chalillo dam has become a cause célèbre, prompting howls of protest from Hollywood star Harrison Ford and prominent Newfoundland entertainer and activist Greg Malone, who was on hand for yesterday's launch.
Fortis, however, denies the activists' claims. "It's a major bombardment in the media of misleading information," said Fortis president and chief executive Stan Marshall.
"Look, I can't directly take on Harrison Ford. What am I going to do, hire Darth Vader?"
A $250,000 environmental assessment paid for by the Canadian government said the project would cause "significant and irreversible" harm to at least 12 different endangered or rare species of wildlife, including the scarlet macaw, the jaguar and the freshwater crocodile.
But the environmental component of the study is flawed, Mr. Marshall said, because the people who conducted it were influenced by lobbyists.
"It's my understanding that they came under some tremendous pressure from these environmental groups, and to a certain degree capitulated to them," he said. "It was noted by the people doing the study that it was factually incorrect."
The government of Belize responded to criticism of the project last month in a strongly worded letter that chastized Mr. Ford, Mr. Kennedy and the council for spinning "an interesting tale based loosely on the facts."
Belize is a poor country with many villages that still have no power, something the government is committed to reversing in the most efficient way possible, said the letter, signed by Cabinet secretary Robert Leslie.
"We are the people most directly affected," Mr. Leslie wrote.
"In Belize, we are clearly, and almost to the person, of the view that we the people and democratic government of Belize must be the ones to decide."
Mr. Marshall said Fortis will abide by the government's decision.
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