Articles on Belize and San Pedro

Last Bird Flight Out of Belize

by: Bruce Barcott

The Macal River Valley in Belize is home to three-toed tapirs, elusive jaguars, and a rare subspecies of scarlet macaw. But if Belize Electricity Ltd. gets its way, one of the richest riparian habitats north of the Amazon will disappear beneath the waters of a controversial hydroelectric dam. So who's gonna get zapped?

SCARLET MACAWS ARC through the sky like flaming arrows.

"I count six, seven," says Greg Sho, training his binoculars on an 80-foot quamwood tree.

"Four more in the tree west of them," says Sharon Matola, standing knee-deep in the Macal River, jotting notes as a rare Morelet's crocodile sunbathes on a boulder nearby.

Matola, the 48-year-old director of the Belize Zoo and an expert on scarlet macaws and tapirs, and Sho, 43, a stocky naturalist who moonlights as a guide for the British Army special forces units that train in Belize's "back-a-boosh," have come to the western divide of the Maya Mountains to observe the macaws' daily commute. Each morning these birds, a rare subspecies known as Ara macao cyanoptera, or the northern Central American scarlet macaw, fly over the spine of the Mayas to feed on the eastern slope, then return in the afternoon. Their home, high up in the leafy canopy that lines the Macal as it rolls down from the highlands into Guatemala, nurtures one of the greatest pockets of biodiversity north of the Amazon basin. During the rainy season, from June to November, the river swells, the succulent plants explode, and the animals—sleepy iguanas, darting oropendolas, packs of collared peccaries—belly up to nature's salad bar. But that may soon change.

"Once the dam comes," says Matola, "everything you see here will be underwater. For good." The dam is a proposed $30 million, 160-foot-high concrete cork called the Chalillo Project. It would turn 12 miles of the Macal, and six miles of its tributary the Raspaculo, into a big bathtub, drowning 2,800 acres of pristine tropical forest and with it the riparian habitat that supports the macaws, along with jaguars, Baird's tapirs, ocelots, and spider monkeys.

An American expat who settled in Belize 20 years ago after a hitch in the U.S. Air Force and a stint as a lion tamer in a Mexican circus, Matola has been fighting the Chalillo Project since it was first announced by Prime Minister Said Musa in 1999. It's been an uphill battle, with banana-republic overtones and a clown car of competing parties facing off in the center ring.

The cast includes the Belizean government, which never saw a development project it didn't like; Belize Electricity Ltd. (BEL), which desperately wants the dam's 7.3 megawatts to drag the browned-out country into the 21st century; Fortis Inc., the Newfoundland-based energy conglomerate that owns BEL and wants to make some money; the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Probe International in Canada, and the Belize Alliance of Conservation Non-Governmental Organizations (BACONGO), which have sicced their enviro lawyers and mailing lists on BEL and Fortis; Matola, who wants to save the scarlet macaws and spare the fecund Macal Valley; a Cambridge-educated judge from Sierra Leone; a lone-wolf geologist; and a cadre of bulldozer-driving Mennonites.

Matola is an ace at maneuvering through the fiery hoops that pass for politics as usual in Belize and has rallied some handsome eco-celebs to her side. Harrison Ford, who filmed The Mosquito Coast here in 1985, slammed the project in a September 2001 op-ed piece in Toronto's Globe and Mail, and NRDC senior attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. denounced it as "one of the most harebrained, reckless schemes that I have seen in 20 years of environmental advocacy." Even Steve Irwin, a.k.a. the Crocodile Hunter, paid a visit to Matola's zoo this past February and shot an episode of his show on the Macal to bring attention to the birds' plight. But none of this has stopped Fortis, BEL, and the government from moving ahead with their plan. Which raises a thornier question that stretches beyond Belizean borders: How do you stop an underdeveloped nation from selling its environmental heritage to a multinational corporation?

Tough one. Especially for the northern Central American scarlet macaws. Only 60 survive in Belize; Matola and Sho know this because they've counted them. The rest—an estimated population of 3,000, ranging from southern Mexico to Nicaragua—are already considered endangered by the World Parrot Trust. If the dam goes up, Belize's flock could very well disappear. "The birds want a clean tree with open sight lines to see predators, which is why they nest in trees on the river," says Sho. "They don't nest in the jungle. The trees are too close together."

Matola climbs back into her canoe. "You wipe out those trees," she says, "you wipe out the birds."

"WE MUST HAVE THIS POWER!" Emory King bellows over the rattle of the A/C in his tiny Belize City office. If you are coming to Belize with dreams and schemes, King is the man to see. Fifty years ago, fresh out of college, he set off from Tampa on a world cruise aboard a small yacht, hit a coral reef off English Caye, took it as a sign, and stayed on to become the country's best-selling historian, as well as a PR flack, news columnist, film commissioner, baseball broadcaster, and raconteur. Now the 71-year-old does some consulting work for BEL.

"In order to attract industry, you need two things: cheap labor and cheap power," King explains. "In Belize we offer expensive labor and expensive power. Sometimes we don't even have expensive power! The other night Mexico cut off our power and the lights were off all night. Now all these people from outside say, ÔYou can't have cheap power.' What?! The United States and Canada have developed their industries on hydroelectric power for 75 years. They come down and tell this poor Third World country that we can't have cheap power because of the birds?"

A New Hampshire-sized nation notched between Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea, Belize has a population of 253,000, which could fit into four NFL football stadiums—too small for an inferiority complex but just big enough to crave the economic stability of the developed world. When Great Britain cut the colony loose in 1981, it agreed to prop up Belize's orange, sugar, and banana growers with favorable tariffs. But those price supports ended in the nineties, leaving the government desperate for cash. So it turned to the global market's solution du jour: privatization. The national telephone company, water utility, seaport, and power utility (BEL) were sold to the highest bidders. Which is how Fortis, a $1.9 billion utility company based on the cold shores of Newfoundland, came to control Belize's hot subtropical kilowatts.

Emory King doesn't care who owns the power company, as long as it keeps the lights on. He tells me this as we make our way to his standing lunch date at the posh Belize City Radisson. "Some of these environmentalists have become absolutely hysterical, going on with one screaming fit after another about the small amount of land that we're going to have to give up," King says after we've been seated in a dining room whose walls are covered with portraits of dogs dressed as British royalty. "One must make sacrifices in this life, no? We'll lose a few trees back there and maybe a couple of Mayan ruins, but we have thousands of Mayan ruins in Belize. If we lose a couple, that will be too bad. Obviously, some birds and animals will be dislocated, but the birds will fly, the animals will crawl away. They're not going to sit there and drown!"

In King's eyes, Belize's glorious future requires good jobs, solid wages, and electrical outlets pumping continuous juice. The jungle? The jungle, dear boy, will take care of itself. But over the past ten years, Belize has come to depend on a healthy jungle. One in four jobs is in tourism, and fancy eco-resorts like Francis Ford Coppola's Blancaneaux Lodge draw more bird-watchers and wildlife enthusiasts each year: 134,000 tourists visited Belize in 1997; in 2001 that figure topped 185,000.

Mick Fleming, 54, a meaty Englishman who owns The Lodge at Chaa Creek with his wife, Lucy, came to Belize in the seventies as a back-to-the-land hippie and turned a ramshackle farm into a luxe 330-acre retreat on the banks of the Macal near the Guatemalan border. "That pristine valley is a huge bank account," Fleming says. "Belize's environment, that's all the country's got going for it. It's like having Fort Knox on your doorstep. We employ 72 Belizeans here—jobs that depend on that river. Now the government feels it's okay for a foreign power like Fortis to come down and take our money and our river."

Who owns a river, anyway? In the United States, each state writes its own river rules and uses a long history of case law to determine what can be done to a waterway. Belize has no case law covering rivers. Belize barely has case law at all. This is the advantage a global corporation enjoys when it buys a Third World monopoly. Fortis saw an economic opportunity: A kilowatt-hour in Belize generates about five times the profit of a kilowatt-hour in Canada. But when it purchased BEL for $25 million in October 1999, Fortis also inherited the utility's right to inundate a rich biological preserve three times the size of New York's Central Park. Not content with merely backing up the river, Fortis demanded more, and got it. According to a secret agreement signed by Prime Minister Said Musa and BEL officials in November 2001 (which BACONGO sued to make public), the government can't take any action on the upper reaches of the Macal without obtaining BEL's written consent. And if there's ever a catastrophe, liability reverts to the government, not BEL.

Who owns the Macal? Right now, the shareholders of Fortis.

LATE ONE NIGHT at a bankside clearing along the Macal, the eyes of crocs glow red in the beam of Greg Sho's flashlight. Darkness has silenced the rah-rah of the macaws. By the light of a small fire, the woman known as the "Zoo Lady" is telling me what compelled her to take on Fortis and the government.

Originally from Baltimore, Matola came to Belize in 1982 to assist filmmaker Richard Foster on a wildlife documentary. When Foster lost his funding, he left Matola with custody of two jaguars, a puma, an anteater, a tayra, three coatimundis, five curassows, and a cage of parrots. On a whim, Matola posted a yellow sign that read BELIZE ZOO beside the Belize City-Belmopan highway. Over the next 20 years, with equal parts charm and grit, she managed to turn her roadside attraction into a world-renowned education-and-research center. These days, Belizeans tune in to Matola's radio broadcasts and wave when she buzzes by on her motorcycle.

"I've been all over Central America, and I've never seen an area richer in biodiversity," Matola says. "Here's one of the last pristine places on earth. It's nature untouched. Destroy that for—what?—seven megawatts?" (One megawatt can power a thousand American homes; Belize's power grid can currently deliver 54 megawatts. According to the NRDC, at full capacity, the Chalillo Project would produce about one-tenth of the country's electricity.)

Matola fired the opening shot in the spring of 1999 by placing an ad in The Cayo Trader, a local paper in the Macal River farm town of San Ignacio. "The implementation of this dam will be the death knell for the remaining scarlet macaws of Belize," it read. "This is environmental crime of the highest degree."

"I didn't know what I was getting myself into," she says now. The government returned fire, charging Matola with peddling "exaggerations, half-truths, and distortion of facts," and hinting that she had a "hidden agenda."

Matola pressed on, lobbying cabinet ministers and cajoling John Brice-o, the deputy minister of natural resources, to join her on a canoe trip up the Raspaculo. But in July 1999, Barry Bowen, a member of the senate and the wealthy bottler of Belikin Beer, the national beverage, stopped by the zoo and advised Matola to back down. "You're hitting your head against a brick wall. The dam's going to happen anyway," Matola recalls Bowen saying. "I don't want to see you get hurt by this." A few months later, a pro-government newspaper declared that Matola and her allies "must now be put into our crosshairs as enemies of this state."

And then the government got nasty. Less than a year into her anti-dam campaign, the Ministry of Natural Resources—Brice-o's department—announced it had found a site for a long-planned national landfill: right next to the Belize Zoo. "They wanted to dump the trash from 200,000 people into this mega-landfill less than a mile from the Sibun River," Tony Garel, the wiry 37-year-old president of BACONGO, told me later. "They had no plans for liners or anything. The waste would have leached into the river."

Matola figured her zoo was done for, but she refused to back down. With the help of Garel and BACONGO, she lobbied Belizean politicians, and then took her case to officials at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Washington, D.C. The IDB, a sort of regional World Bank that finances development projects in Latin America and the Caribbean, was putting up $6.6 million of the dump's $7.4 million cost. Confronted with the plan, the bank sided with Matola and BACONGO, and threatened to withhold its money unless a more environmentally suitable site was found. Lo and behold, a better site was found ten miles away from the zoo.

Garel put it this way: "That was the first time we realized that if we fought the government over an environmental issue, we just might win."

THIS IS WHERE the Mennonites and the geologist come in.

Belize is dotted with tiny colonies of Mennonites, most of whom immigrated in the fifties from Canada and Mexico. Each colony occupies a unique position on the continuum of modernity. The more Amish types stick with horse-drawn, steel-wheeled buggies. Others, known in the rural districts as the "mechanized Mennonites," are quite handy with heavy machinery—just the folks to call when you need to bust a road through the jungle.

In January 2002, with international protest growing, a shady group of dam proponents decided to cut to the chase. Somebody—BEL says it wasn't them, honest—approached the mechanized Mennonites with money and a map. In a few days, they carved a road through the heart of the forest to the Chalillo site—a road that, according to the secret agreement hammered out by Prime Minister Musa, will be paid for by the taxpayers, not BEL. (The government doesn't deny that a road was built; it just denies that the road has anything to do with the dam.)

By the time anti-dam activists obtained a restraining order, it was too late. FORTIS JUMPS THE GUN! announced the Belize City Reporter, perhaps the only sizable newspaper in the country not aligned with either the People's United Party (Musa's party) or their opponents, the United Democratic Party (UDP). "While BEL officials in Belize were giving their assurance that nothing would be done until all the proper studies are complete and all the legal permits are in hand," The Reporter stated, "Mennonite bulldozers tore through this forest reserve, toppling trees and scarring this once placid place."

Belizeans expect a little corruption from their government officials, but the midnight road-cutting caused an outrage. Abdulai O. Conteh, the 54-year-old chief justice of the supreme court, who came to Belize from Sierra Leone as part of the British Commonwealth's judicial pooling program, ordered construction to halt while he heard BACONGO's lawsuit against BEL and the government. Belize's environmental laws are surprisingly progressive, requiring public hearings and environmental-impact assessments before building, say, a major dam. There had been an assessment—which included a report by scientists from London's Natural History Museum noting that the dam would mean "probable eventual extirpation" of the local scarlet macaws—but no public hearings. The road builders pushed on regardless. Why? They wanted to get moving, it seems, before the rainy season.

BACONGO's charges were presented by Dean Barrow, the 52-year-old leader of the UDP, who recently lost a bid to unseat Prime Minister Musa. Barrow also happens to be the father of Jamal "Shyne" Barrow, the 22-year-old aspiring rap star who shot three people in a New York City nightclub four years ago for supposedly dissing music mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. As if things weren't colorful enough, Dean Barrow's younger brother, Denys, argued the case for the government. "It's a small country," a former BEL official told me. "Good lawyers are hard to find."

While Conteh mulled the case, a geologist named Brian Holland started tapping the Chalillo site with a rock hammer. Holland is no tree hugger. He's a rugged 55-year-old American expat who runs Belize Minerals Ltd., a mining operation that supplies magnesium-rich dolomite to banana growers. He makes it his business to know what's under Belize's soil, and he suspected that the rock at Chalillo was a far cry from granite, which is what Fortis's geological consultants said they had found.

"This is a survey map made by British geologist C. G. Dixon in 1955," he tells me, unfurling a chart of the upper Macal River one day during a visit to Matola's Tropical Education Center at the Belize Zoo. "It's one of only two surveys of Belize ever published. I got it for 40 bucks off the Internet." Dixon's survey shows Chalillo sitting one and a half miles east of the Cooma Cairn Fault—an active earthquake zone, Holland notes.

There is granite at Chalillo, the map indicates, but it lies under three and a half miles of sandstone and shale. This made Holland question the viability of the entire project. He's now one of its most outspoken critics. "This is what those idiots identified as granite!" he says, holding up a crumbly stone he chipped off the rock walls at Chalillo. "This is Geology 101 stuff, man!"

"YES, THERE ARE FAULTS. Any rock has faults. But Belize is not in an active earthquake zone," declares Joseph Sukhnandan, the point man on the Chalillo Project, as we sit in his air-conditioned office at BEL's headquarters in Belize City. "If we were, how could all the Mayan structures remain standing?"

This may fly in the face of what seismologists have to say about Belize, but that's Sukhnandan's story and he's sticking with it. In fact, the more opportunities I give him to respond to Holland's assertions about cracks in BEL's dam plan, the more he seems to wish these questions would just go away.

To the power planners at BEL, Chalillo was supposed to be a slam dunk. Dams have fallen out of favor in developed countries as scientists have documented their devastating effects on fish and the ecosystems of entire watersheds, but they're still big business in the Third World. Of course, compared with projects like China's Three Gorges Dam and India's Sardar Sarovar Project, Chalillo is barely a blip on the radar.

What irks Sukhnandan, a 38-year-old engineer who was born and raised in Guyana, is the way BEL has been crowned with a black hat. "We have had a series of people who call themselves 'experts' come and tell us they know better than us how to meet the electricity demand," he says. "It is a travesty! If we were to choose a site purely in terms of engineering and power-producing purposes, we would have gone upriver. But a dam upriver would have caused greater flooding in the Raspaculo," where the threatened keel-billed motmot, a bright-green songbird, nests. "We tried to balance power demands with environmental concerns."

Ten years ago, most of Belize's electricity came from ancient diesel generators that spewed greenhouse gases and carcinogenic particulates into the air. But by reconfiguring its system to include hydropower and cleaner-burning natural gas from Mexico, BEL has cut its diesel generation by more than half while doubling the amount of electricity it delivers. The problem is that Belize's power demand grows 10 to 15 percent each year; the world average is 2 to 3 percent. "We have to meet that demand using some source," says Sukhnandan. "Our choices are diesel, hydro, or buying from Mexico."

Waving a red pen in front of a dry-erase board next to his desk, Sukhnandan lays out BEL's position. He draws a map of Belize on the board and lectures me about the power grid. His exasperation is palpable. Several times he stops to bark, "Are you understanding this?!"

Chalillo's opponents point to untapped power sources like bagasse—the stalk refuse from sugarcane—as an alternative to the dam. Belize's cane growers are developing power plants that burn bagasse, producing enough energy to make sugar and put surplus megawatts back into BEL's grid. I ask Sukhnandan about this.

"Do we need bagasse?" he responds. "Yes. Bagasse adds 15 megawatts to our capacity. That will take us to the year 2006. You still have to have something else! I mean, come on. Unless somebody's not understanding English here."

I nod emphatically: Yes, yes. Go on.

"The physical limit of bagasse in Belize is 15 megawatts. There are only so many cane farms. Bagasse cannot give more. This is the point we've been painstakingly trying to make!!"

So the country needs a new power source. Point taken. But what about the crumbly bits of sandstone that Holland found at the proposed dam site?

"It turns out that the rock's name may not be granite, but its characteristics are identical to that of granite," Sukhnandan says. "Its chemical composition, its texture, its bearing strength—all are identical to granite. But it might technically be a sandstone. The reason for that is a long explanation that we don't have the time for."

There endeth the lesson. But Sukhnandan's curt dismissals seemed dubious. I asked around. "In general, you can build a dam on just about any foundation, as long as you have a thorough knowledge of the geology," says Larry Stephens, executive director of the U.S. Society on Dams. And an active fault line doesn't necessarily damn a dam, as long as it's taken into account. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently completed the Seven Oaks Dam, which is situated between the north and south branches of the San Andreas Fault on California's Santa Ana River and was designed to sustain up to four feet of displacement in the event of an earthquake.

Upshot: A solid dam could be built at Chalillo, provided the builders have a thorough knowledge of the bedrock.

IN LATE DECEMBER 2002, Chief Justice Conteh did not overturn the Department of Environment's decision to green-light the Chalillo dam. He did, however, force the government to hold a public hearing on the project, explaining, "I realize that this order would, in effect, sound like putting the cart before the horse. But so be it. The cart must be stopped. This would not necessarily overturn or upset it. But stop it must, until a public hearing is held."

At first, anti-dam activists looked on the bright side. "This is a step forward for democracy in Belize!" wrote Ari Hershowitz, director of the NRDC's Biogems Project for Latin America. Then came the public hearing on January 16 in Santa Elena, which BEL packed with supporters who hogged the microphone. "If anything at all, last week's meeting was less than a public discussion—it was a public farce," wrote The Reporter.

Now, in an attempt to stall the project, BACONGO is suing BEL to have a new environmental-impact assessment done, and has filed an injunction to halt construction at Chalillo until all appeals are heard. (BEL could start building, but if the enviros' legal appeals are successful, the public assessment period could go back to square one, at which point BEL would be forced to stop work on the dam indefinitely—a very costly gamble.) "Fortis is hell-bent on doing this," Matola says. "The only way to persuade them not to may be to tie them up in court."

One thing you should know about the dam is that it will be built 30 miles upstream from the 15,000 residents of San Ignacio and Santa Elena, dusty farm towns that sit on opposite banks of the Macal and combine to form Belize's third-largest city. If the dam failed, the townspeople would have about an hour to find higher ground—that is, if the phone line from Chalillo still worked.

I stopped by to see if anybody was worried. "It's big-time worries," Thomas Caretela told me. Caretela, 42, works on a research farm beside the Macal. His wife and six children live in Santa Elena. "If that thing burst, there's no insurance for anybody here. The government will just cry, 'Act of God!' But, for sure, God himself wouldn't build that dam."

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