Ground broken on Chalillo hydro project
Wednesday, May 28, 2003

It was a low-key affair, organised with little fanfare and even less
advance notice. But make no mistake: what took place today in a remote
corner of the Mountain Pine Ridge marked--depending on who you choose to
believe--either the beginning of a new era of energy independence, or
the greatest environmental and economic disaster in Belizean history.
But for the hundred or so dignitaries gathered this morning, the only
controversy was over who would dig the first spade full of earth.

Janelle Chanona, Reporting
After countless hours in the courtroom, today the Chalillo Hydro
Electric Project broke ground with full force.

Get a good look, because by December 2005, the water level of the Upper
Macal River would have been raised some thirty-five metres, generating
more than half of Belize's energy needs.

Fortis Incorporated, majority shareholder of Belize Electricity Limited,
has been trying to build this dam for more than five years.

Stan Marshall, President, Fortis
"For me it's been a very unusual exercise in that's a very small project
in international terms, but it's received such international attention
that really if you look at it from the Fortis point of view, it probably
wouldn't have been worth our while. But it's part of our commitment to
this country, it's very, very important to this country, much more
important to Belize than it is to Fortis. So I'm delighted for the
people of this country that we're able to proceed today."

Holding up the process were a series of legal actions brought on by
environmental groups from Belize and Canada. The activists argued that
Chalillo's feasibility and environmental studies were inaccurate, and
would do nothing more than needlessly destroy the habitats of several
endangered species.

Janelle Chanona
"There might not have been any protestors at today's ground breaking
ceremonies, but Belize's environmental movement was represented in the
tracks of a tapir...a very big tapir."

Stan Marshall
"All hydro-developments are developed in river valleys, which tend to be
picturesque, tend to be diverse. And so if that were the only criteria,
no one would develop hydro resources anywhere. But in places like
Canada, where seventy percent of your power comes from hydro resources,
so there's always this trade-off between looking after your environment
and economic development. And so all we can do is try to identify the
sites that we think can be developed economically and with respect to
the environment. But in the final analysis, it's not my decision."

No, that decision fell squarely on the shoulders of the Government of
Belize.

John Briceño, Min. of Natural Resources/Environment
"Belize has been growing at a very rapid pace, just in electricity needs
has been growing by over ten percent per year. And the only way we can
do that is by having Chalillo and other forms of energy. Chalillo is not
the only answer, we have many other things that we need to do, such as
the cogeneration project that B.S.I. is promoting. We support that also,
because we realise that Chalillo alone would not be enough."

Janelle Chanona
"You are Minister of Natural Resources, that's why you're investing in
that idea, you're also Minister of Environment...what's it been like, I
know there have been several groups actively protesting this project,
what's it been like trying to appease both sides so to speak?"

John Briceño
"Well, look at our record, we have forty-two percent of our country
under a protected area status, which country has done that. We have been
doing our part, but we understand also that our people need electricity,
we have to develop this country, we have to create more opportunities,
we have to create more economic development in the country. And the only
way we're going to do this is by having a reliable and safe and
renewable source of energy, which best uses our own natural
resources."

"It has really been Belizeans if you want to be very honest about this
whole thing, so we do expect for them to continue to do that. I think
what is sad about this whole thing is that these groups, they have
thrown out through the window all the wonderful work that we have been
doing in Belize. We have been doing our part in protecting the
environment, but we also have to develop Belize, and Belizeans come
first at the end of the day."

But as the monopoly electricity company in Belize, can B.E.L. say
whether rates will go up or down when Chalillo comes on stream?

Stan Marshall
"The thing we've always said is that electricity from this site will be
lowest cost of any electricity in this country. So if we don't develop
it, electricity will be more expensive than if we do. So what happens in
respect to pries is difficult to say fully, because it depends on other
things. Not all electricity will come from this site, we'll still have
to generate electricity from other sources, so depending on the overall
prices, there will be changes in electricity. But I think to be sure,
you are and you listeners, is that this will make electricity prices
lower than they otherwise would be...that is the guarantee."

Chalillo will flood approximately three square miles, holding back
approximately sixty billion gallons of water and will serve as a water
storage facility for the Mollejon Hydro-Electric plant further down the
Macal River.

Joseph Sukhnandan, Chalillo Project Manager
"We will release one meter cube per second, which is about half this
water, all day. And then you would release how much water you need for
Mollejon. So let us say it would vary during a typical day, if Mollejon
needs all of it to keep Mollejon running at full capacity, you then
release that amount. If it only needs half of it...because once you
release it, you don't have a storage of at Mollejon, so you're gonna
lose it. So what you will do, you will then manage the amount of water
that you release here, and you'll only release exactly how much you need
at Mollejon."

Lynn Young, C.E.O. Belize Electricity Limited
"But what we have to do over the next year or two is to study the river
flows, because between here and Mollejon, there are other tributaries in
the river and so you have to study these tributaries. If they are
flooded, then you might not want to release as much water. If in dry
season when those are very dry, we would have to release our water from
here. So over time, we're gonna learn how to manage it to get the best
performance at Mollejon and the least environmental impact."

Stan Marshall
"We'll begin by building a small dam at the site here to allow us to
work during the rainy season, to hold back some of the waters on one
side of river bank to allow work on the main dam itself."

B.E.L. hopes that the official start of the Chalillo Hydroelectric
Project will mean an end to controversy that has inundated it since day
one. Reporting from the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve for News 5, I
am Janelle Chanona.

Opponents of the Chalillo project have vowed to appeal their case to the
Privy Council in London.