Belize Dam Approval Challenged in Court
BELIZE CITY, Belize, February 20, 2002 (ENS) - Belizean environmental and business groups have filed a lawsuit to block the controversial, Canadian backed Chalillo Dam project. The suit challenges the Belizean government's conditional approval for the hydroelectric dam, charging that the government failed to hold public hearings or consider comments from scientists, as required by Belizean law.
The lawsuit also charges the dam's proponents, Newfoundland based Fortis Inc. and its partner, the Belize government, with breaking the country's environmental law by allowing preparation work to begin at the dam site before the project's environmental review is completed.
Bulldozers began clearing a road leading to the proposed dam site in January 2002, despite claims by Fortis Inc. and environmental authorities in Belize that no work was being done (Photo courtesy http://www.stopfortis.org/
Construction began on the access road to the dam site this month, despite official statements from Fortis and the Belize government that no work has started.
The Chalillo project, also known as the Macal River Upstream Storage Facility (MRUSF), is expected to flood 1,100 hectares (2,718 acres) of pristine forest, engulfing the valleys of the Macal and Raspaculo rivers.
Opponents of the project say the dam would flood one of the last intact rainforests in Central America, destroying habitat for rare and endangered species including the jaguar, scarlet macaw and Belize's national animal, the tapir.
The remote jungle valleys that the project will flood are nestled between the Central Maya mountains near the Guatemalan border. The region provides one of the last large havens for the nation's wealth of biodiversity.
Belize's jaguars need vast areas of uninterrupted forest to survive. The area to be flooded by the proposed dam is one of the last large tracts of rainforest left in Belize (Two photos courtesy Belize Zoo)
In November 2001, the Belize National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC) announced that "subsequent to several sessions to diligently review the Environmental Impact Assessment" on the MRUSF, the government had granted environmental clearance for the project.
"The NEAC is satisfied that the benefits of the MRUSF project outweighs the environmental costs and that most of the adverse effects can be mitigated and/or managed through the implementation of a sound environmental compliance plan," the committee said in a press release.
The government review of the project was rushed through a government technical committee in two days, following demonstrations against the dam in Belize's capital city of Belmopan. The NEAC gave its conditional approval despite gaps and errors in the 1,500 page environmental assessment, the lawsuit charges.
The committee ignored comments provided by numerous experts contending that the assessment - paid for by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) - underestimates environmental harm and provides incorrect information about the bedrock that the dam would be built upon. Geologists say that this misinformation could lead to failure of the dam, and put downstream communities at risk.
The dam will flood one of the only known nesting areas for the Belize scarlet macaw
"The dam will put our children and our environment at risk," said Jamillah Vasquez, executive director of the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs (non-governmental organizations). "If Fortis and the government follow the law, we are convinced that this dam will not be built. We are going to take this lawsuit as far as it takes to get justice."
The lawsuit - the first of its kind in Belize - was brought by Belizean environmental and tourism groups, including the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs and the Belize Eco-tourism Association, and is the most recent action in a three year campaign to stop the dam.
U.S. actor Harrison Ford, artist Robert Bateman and Robert Kennedy Jr., an attorney with the U.S. based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), have all publicly criticized the project.
"In nearly two decades as an environmental lawyer, this is one of the worst cases I've seen of profiteering at the expense of people and the environment," said Kennedy, who joined Belizeans in Toronto and Belize City last year to denounce the project. "Fortis and its partners are breaking the law in Belize in a way they could never do in the United States or Canada."
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks with a journalist from the "Belize Reporter" (Photo courtesy Stopfortis.org)
Fortis owns Belize's national electric utility and wants to build the Chalillo dam to store water for a smaller hydro dam that it owns downstream. Critics point out that construction of the first dam is largely to blame for the high electricity rates Belizeans already pay to Fortis - three times the average rate in Canada - and that Fortis is denying Belizeans cheaper, better generating options that would leave the Macal River Valley intact.
Thousands of people from around the world have sent letters to Fortis, urging the company to abandon the dam project, and the campaign has gained worldwide attention through the Internet. Opponents of the project have put together a Web site, http://www.stopfortis.org
, and people from as far away as New Zealand and Uruguay have signed the campaign's online petition.
The NRDC first brought the issue to international attention two years ago as one of its BioGems campaigns. NRDC's list of BioGems highlights a select group of natural areas that are considered important centers of biological diversity that are under attack from industrial exploitation.
[This message has been edited by Marty (edited 03-03-2002).]