REPORT #99 August 1999

Produced by the Belize Development Trust

By Meb Cutlack

As Belize slowly recovers from the London Times/Ashcroft assault, a new alarm call is being sounded which could drag Belize's good name once more deep into controversy.

Last Friday,- "World Parrot Day," was launched in London by comic actor John Cleese of Monty Python fame, It is a global action plan to focus world-wide attention on the fact that the parrot is the most endangered bird family on earth.

Belize's controversial Chalillo dam project, and the threat it implies for the endangered Scarlet Macaw, would run slap-bang into one of the most powerfully backed international conservation programs ever mounted. Not only has Cleese released a new video for world-wide distribution that could match in popularity his famous "Dead Parrot" video of the 60's, but the project has the backing of Belize's old friend and often benefactor, the World Wildlife Fund, and also the World Parrot Trust.

There are very few people in the English-speaking world who do not remember Cleese's "Dead Parrot" sketch in which Cleese angrily confronts a pet shop owner who has a parrot nailed to a perch: "It's popped its clogs, it's an exparrot!" was his famous line as he thumped the pitiful parrot corpse on to the pet shop owner's counter. Today, in his new "Live Parrot" video, he introduces Groucho, a live singing parrot.

According to WWF, almost one in three species of parrots is at risk of extinction due to the pet trade and and destruction of habitat as the world's forests disappear. Among many of the "already disappeared" parrot species are the Cuban Macaw and high on the list of potentially lost species is Belize's own Scarlet Macaw, found only in a very small area of Central America.

It is this beautiful bird of Belize, which is also a proud symbol of the nation, that could cause an extraordinary international outcry against Belize as the "World Parrot Day" year-long, global-action plan gains momentum. Tourism, and especially eco-tourism, is Belize's fastest growing industry, rapidly replacing her agricultural production as the country's major foreign exchange earner. Belize's earnings in tourism rely to a great extent on the well-earned reputation Belize has as a conservation conscious destination. This reputation and the annual input of tourists who come with it could disappear overnight if a threat to her small Scarlet Macaw population becomes an international "cause celebre."

The major problem for Belize is that a particular riverine tree and forest growth area of the Raspaculo River in the Pine Ridge is one of the Scarlet Macaw's only known breeding areas. It is this exact area that the second hydro dam at Chalillo will flood.

Experts suggest that this will most likely wipe out the breeding area, and result in the possibility of extinction for the Belize Scarlet Macaw.

John Cleeses's original "Dead Parrot" video, and even its radio version, raised a laugh around the world that can be heard to this day. His new video, highlighting the fate of parrots everywhere, could well raise a cry against Belize that will make the London Times/Ashcroft controversy seem tame by comparison.

Here is a quote from the most recent, soon to be released, environmental survey carried out in the area:

"Preliminary studies have indicated that over 90 percent of the riparian habitat on the Macal and Raspaculo Rivers would be inundated by the dam.

" The type of vegetation found within this ecological zone suppports an abundant herbivore population. For example, Tapirs, an endangered species, are common in the area. Because it is remote and within a Protected Area (Chiquibul Forest Reserve and Chiquibul National Park), little human incursion occurs. The lack of hunting pressures, and ample food source for herbivores, has provided a healthy prey base for wildlife predators; i.e., species of wild cats, crocodiles, and raptors. No other area in Belize matches this river valley for its ' rich bio diversity. It is the only known area where the endangered Scarlet Macaw is known to breed. Preliminary feasibility studies have stated that the inundation resulting from the dam would have. negative impacts upon the country's Tapir populations, and be a critical factor for the future of the nation's remaining Scarlet Macaws."

One wonders if the Belize government has truly assessed the potential fall-out of the Chalillo Dam, particularly as the supporters of the project have so far not been able in any way to confirm their claims that the dam will help reduce the price of electricity. The proof is all in the other direction, that the dam will actually raise the price of electricity - as Belize's approximately 40,000 heads of household struggle to meet the $75,000,000 plus $25,000,000 US hydro bill. This, amortized over 40 years at 12%, comes to around a billion dollars.

It may, for three decades to come, be a case of- "Sorry, kids, we didn't know what we were doing! "

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