Belize Dam Fight Heats Up as Court Prepares to Rule
By Sharon Guynup
for National Geographic Today
June 7, 2002
This summer, a Supreme Court justice in Belize will decide the fate of the
remote Macal River Valley, a pristine rain forest that is among the most
ecologically diverse on the planet_ home to one of the largest jaguar
populations in Central America. It is the only known Belizean nesting site
for the rare scarlet macaw, and shelters tapirs, howler monkeys and a host
of other threatened and endangered creatures. The fate of ancient,
unexcavated Mayan settlements dating from the fifth century also hangs in
On June 10, the court will begin hearings on two lawsuits filed by a
coalition of environmental and business groups challenging the government's
approval of a U.S. $30 million hydroelectric dam by Fortis, Inc. of
Newfoundland, Canada. The suits charge that the project will destroy crucial
habitat and raise electric bills by passing construction costs to customers.
Two years ago Fortis purchased Belize Electric, the national power utility.
"This is one of the worst boondoggles I've ever seen in nearly two
decades as an environmental lawyer," said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an
environmental lawyer with the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council
(NRDC). "It's will make a few Canadian businessmen wealthier and impoverish
the people of Belize for a generation. This is globalization at its worst."
Fortis CEO Stanley Marshall disagrees. "This dam provides the most
economical power available for Belize." But on Disclosure, a Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation production, he admitted that Chalillo would "not
necessarily lower electricity rates."
The dam has ignited a firestorm of controversy. More than a dozen advocacy
groups in the U.S., Canada, and Belize organized a letter-writing campaign
that delivered tens of thousands of opposition faxes and e-mails to Fortis,
with celebrities like Harrison Ford lending their names to the cause.
NRDC joined the fight two years ago, adding the Macal River to its list of
"biogems," environmentally critical regions threatened by development.
It's gotten nasty, with Belizean newspapers calling the NRDC and opponents
of the project "lawbreakers" and "terrorists." The government would like the
whole controversy over, according to Robert Leslie, Secretary to the
Cabinet. "Some people want the entire country to become a zoo," he said. "We
are simply trying to get electricity to people who don't have an ice cube's
chance in hell of getting it. But if the courts say we stop construction of
the dam, we will respect that decision."
Supporters argue that the dam is needed to feed an existing dam during the
dry season and to ease dependence on Mexico, which supplies one third of the
nation's electricity. John Briceno, Belizean minister of natural resources,
is concerned because their current agreement expires in 2008.
The dam won't resolve energy problems, and environmentalists feel that there
are better alternatives, like buying off-peak Mexican electricity or using
sugar cane for cogeneration.
The Chalillo Dam was first proposed in the early 1990s, when a feasibility
study warned against environmental damage. More recently, a study funded by
the Canadian government buried recommendations by the Natural History Museum
in London that the project be dropped, placing it in an appendix to their
The Belizean government gave conditional approval in November. "As far as
the government is concerned, we have given permission for the project to
start. There are a few little glitches here that can be ironed out as time
goes on," said Leslie.
Environmentalists say that the cost is too high_environmentally and
financially. "[Fortis's] contract with the Belizean government guarantees a
15 to 20 percent profit per year and doesn't even require them to produce
energy," said Kennedy. "It will be the highest priced energy in Latin
Probe International and the NRDC say that people downstream from the dam
would be threatened. According to Ari Hershowitz, director of NRDC's Biogems
Program, Fortis's geological studies state that the site is granite, when
it's really sandstone and shale. "The worst case scenario: The dam breaks,
floods communities downstream and kills people." Fortis's contract
guarantees that they can sell the dam to the government for $1 without
liability, he adds.
Marshall argues that there is a proper foundation for the dam, and that the
company's biological and geological assessments meet international
But the animals have received the most attention. The dam would fracture the
Mesoamerican Wildlife Corridor, a rain forest tract stretching from Mexico
to Panama, established to protect migration routes and breeding grounds for
wild cats, migratory birds, and other animals, said Sharon Matola, founder
of the Belize Zoo and a principal in the lawsuit.
The valley is one of the only known nesting sites for a subspecies of
scarlet macaw which numbers under 100 individuals in Belize_and provides the
best habitat for jaguars, who roam 40 miles a day to hunt.
"This is the cradle for biodiversity in Central America, and arguably the
wildest place left in the region," said Matola. "Trading off millions of
years of biological evolution for a hydro scheme which, at best, would last
50 years, is an environmental crime of the highest degree."
This is the country's first-ever environmental lawsuit. "Belize's
environmental laws have never been tested," said Hershowitz. A ruling on the
two suits is expected around mid-July. But even then this fight may not be