Editorial - Chalillo Dam - Who will benefit?

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 11, No. 46            November 22, 2001

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Surprise, surprise - what everyone knew would happen months ago has happened. The National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC) has given environmental clearance for the Chalillo Dam to proceed. All government members voted to approve Fortis' Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), while Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs (BACONGO), voted against. This, even though Canadian-owned Fortis, owner of Belize Electricity Ltd. since 1999 and the monopoly supplier of electricity to Belize, stated on CBC radio in Canada that they would abandon the dam project if the Canadian environmental assessment found it would cause untoward damage to the environment. Well guess what? That is exactly what the EIA stated. Fortis is still planning to build the $45-$60 million dam even though their own wildlife consultant, the Natural History Museum of London, has recommended the dam NOT be built, stating it will cause "significant and irreversible harm to Belizean wildlife". It further states that the Belizean ratepayers will have to subsidize the high cost of the dam by paying higher rates.  

    The dam will stand 50 meters high and will be nearly 350 meters in length. It will flood a 1,000 hectare area of the Macal River Valley, one of the wildest, un-developed areas remaining in Central America. Two known undisturbed Mayan ruins, which contain ancient temples and pyramids will be submerged; one of the sites was featured in a National Geographic television documentary. It will destroy the habitat of endangered species and pose serious risks to all who rely on the Macal River.

    So why is Fortis so intent on building this dam? Is it because it will provide cheaper rates? Is it because it will make Belize energy self-sufficient? Is it because it will create jobs for Belizeans? Is it because it is the only economic and viable option for Belize? The answer to all these question is a big NO! Fortis wants to build the dam for one reason and one reason only-MONEY. Fortis realizes that with a monopoly they have a captive audience, an audience that they will totally control for 50 years. They will now control a river, a river that does not take any of their money to operate. They will control the price consumer's pay for electricity and they will control the way that electricity is produced. They have the wonderful option of knowing any mistakes and highly questionable practices they decide to implement - past, present or future - will not be paid for by them, but by the people of Belize and sadly, with the present government's blessing and backing.

   Can this company build this dam in Belize even if the majority of Belizeans are against it? Well, yes and no.

    The first hurdle they had to jump is approval from the Government of Belize. Evidently, this was just a minor stepping stone. On August 2nd, 2001, before the EIA was close to completion, before all relevant documents were written and presented, Prime Minister Musa said of Chalillo, "We want to see it move ahead and move ahead quickly!" Again in September, at the PUP National Convention, the PM declared his support of the dam. Recently, a group of over 400 legally assembled protesters marched on Belmopan to voice their opposition to Chalillo. They were met by a small group of pro-Chalillo activists (many who said, when questioned by the media, that they were paid to be there) assembled in the capital. The PM took that opportunity to join the pro-Chalillo demonstrators. The rationale for the head of the government of Belize to join in a demonstration of this type will not be debated here. The PM's comments, justifying why the dam should be built, will. 1) Lots of jobs for two to three years - No doubt building a structure like this will create jobs, but are these jobs going to be filled by Belizean workers or, like Mollejon, will they import Chinese labor? 2) Flood control - If, as stated, the Chalillo dam will need to be kept full in order to work, how will it control flooding? Fill your bathtub with water; when you turn the faucet back on to add more water it overflows uncontrollably. The only way to stop it is to turn off the faucet. Who'll stop the rain? 3) Cheaper rates down the road - As it stands the Belizean people are Fortis' biggest profit makers. Fortis receives $78,500 (Canadian) per giga watt-hour (GWh) from their Canadian customers; they receive almost a whopping $255,000 (Canadian) per GWh from Belizean consumers. Does ANYONE honestly believe that this dam will be the reason this MONOPOLY will lower the cost of electricity? And do not forget, BEL has also stated it will need to build a third dam at Vaca Falls for all of this to work. 4) Other economic benefits - Fortis will spend almost $50 million dollars just to build this dam. The bank they will secure their loan from does not accept Belize dollars, which means more US dollars will be needed to satisfy their bank payments. The economic benefits are clearly all Fortis' and the people on their payroll. 5) Non-dependant on fossil fuel - At perfect, peak performance Chalillo will put out a mediocre 7.3 megawatts of electricity (earlier figures quoted 6). According to Ambrose Tillett, the former senior planner at BEL who was let go from the company in October of 2000, the actual firm capacity Chalillo will produce on a normal level is only about three megawatts. And what about the dry season? At best, the dam will make Belize less dependant not independent on fossil fuel.

    During the demonstration, the PM also stated "We see Chalillo as a good thing, and we want the people of Belize, not foreigners, to decide." This statement is perplexing. When were the consultations with the people held so they could decide? When did government solicit the people of the country for their input? We have heard certain ministers come out for it and we know the Canadian company Fortis is for it. We have heard the people from the "rent-a-crowd" were for it, even though when questioned some had no idea what it was or what it was about, but we have yet to hear from the other 99.9% of Belizeans. And now, with the government's blessing, it is now up to foreigners to decide (the stockholders of Fortis). This statement also alludes to foreigners trying to impose their will on Belize. Do not let the propaganda or fancy pro-Chalillo T-shirts fool you. The anti-Chalillo fight is being waged in Canada against a Canadian company, by Canadians and the international community. Canadians are especially embarrassed that one of their own billion-dollar companies is trying to do something in Belize that is completely illegal in their own country. They are ashamed to have their country's name associated in the rape of another country's environment and murder of its economy. The information being circulated in Belize by the media and international community is to let the Belizean people know the plans for environmental destruction and profit driven greed that are being hoisted on the public in the guise of the betterment of the people of Belize. The public whose children and children's children will be saddled with paying for this white elephant for the next fifty years. If they do not let the public know about the irresponsible, uncaring and profit driven attitude of this monopoly, who in this country will? Evidently not the government and certainly not Fortis. After all, it is not Fortis' country, they do not have to live here, why should they care if they trash it? They are making money hand-over-fist and leading a "fat cat" life somewhere else.

    Now, after the government has given its blessing to the project before the EIA was completed and without country-wide consultations with all the people, public hearings are now being planned. The hearings are to tell the public about the information presented in the EIA and the decisions made by NEAC, including the conditions upon which clearance is being granted. So, once again, how was this decision supposed to be made by the Belizean people? It has been made. These hearings are strictly to let you know how they plan to control the environmental destruction the dam will cause. The high rates you will be forced to pay for this dam, whether it works or not, will probably not be debated.

    Fortis has stated if they do not proceed soon, the project will become economically unfeasible. Economically unfeasible for who? Why all this rush to build this dam when all the facts, all the documents and all the studies are not available to the NEAC or the people of Belize? They are gambling the future of this country on an incomplete document.  There are many things this EIA does not address and there are many problems it points out but offers no alternatives or solutions for. Why rush to build a facility that will force people to pay higher prices and destroy a part of Belizean heritage? Have we not learned anything from the 20-year concession given to BTL? Outrageous communication rates, denied access to modern technology and no option but to take what is given to us and pay whatever price they decide. Technology is moving ahead by leaps and bounds. There are many alternative and better sources of energy available now; of course, these alternatives do not allow a few to profit at the expense of the many. The reason to rush this project through is simple; once the public is made aware of all the facts, it will not be allowed to proceed!

    The bottom line still remains that Belize needs an alternative energy source. If one were to make a wish list of things that would be in the best interest of Belize it might go something like this. An energy source that was environmentally friendly. An energy source that would employ Belizeans. An energy source that would not result in a massive drain on our foreign currency. An energy source that is reliable 365 days of the year. An energy source that is capable of supplying two to three times the output of the dam. An energy source that would be a model for the rest of the world. And as long as we are wishing, how about a source of energy that helps 10,000 Belizeans stay employed? Well guess what - Santa came early - we have that source right here in Belize. A bagasse fired electrical power utility at Tower Hill could be ready by 2003 and deliver 11.5 Megawatts of power to the national grid, reliably, 365 days of the year. The plant would use an additional eight Megawatts of electricity to operate the electric motors at the factory. There would be no need for an EIA since the only emission is  carbon dioxide, which the sugar cane absorbed, being released back into the atmosphere. The plant would cost $25 million to build (1/2 the price of Chalillo and double the output). The Minister of Labor and Sugar Industry, the Belize Cane Farmers Association and the Belize Sugar Workers Union all support this project.

     So, you say, that is still not enough energy for the country; we must stop relying on foreign owned and supplied power. HELLO! Fortis is a foreign owned company. Just because they build a dam in your backyard does not change the fact that it is foreign owned and controlled. You can check every bank in Belize but I doubt you will find their money deposited here. What you will find is the environment destroyed, the price of electricity higher and eco-tourism a thing of the past.

    There is also another way for Belize to have affordable electricity which no one in government or Fortis dares mention-OPEN COMPETITION! After 20 years it is finally being proposed for communication, must we wait 50 years for it to happen with our power needs?

     The point is the EIA is incomplete at best. It does not address the cost of mitigation; it does not address any problems that might affect the communities downstream. It does not address the cave systems that are in the region. There are no adequate hydrological studies available to engineers to estimate water flow at Mollejon and this is still the case for Chalillo! Without this and other pertinent information, how in the world can anyone make a factual and accurate projection of what this dam will or will not do? There are too many more concerns it does not take into account to mention here. Additionally there has been no definitive study of suitable alternative energy power sources as required by law. There are less costly options available that produce electricity 365 days of the year, not just during the rainy season. To rush into something as important as this would be foolhardy and shortsighted. And to add a new twist, the CEO of Fortis, Stan Marshall, is feeling the international pressure upon him since he has gone back on his promise to abandon the dam project if the EIA determined the dam would irreparably harm the environment. He now says he will abide by the decision of the Belize government - who came out in support of the dam in August!

     If the government has felt, since August, that the dam was such a good idea for the people why have they not made an attempt to inform the public of the benefits and the downfalls of this dam. Why are the people being forced into 50 more years of economic servitude to a foreign owned utility company, a project that will not empower but enslave the people?  Why is the Belizean consumer - not Fortis being held hostage to pay off the massive debt regardless if this project works or not? And if, as government says, they want the Belizean people to be the ones to decide the outcome of this dam, why are countrywide consultations not being held where both sides of the issue could be presented and debated? Government MUST put a hold on this project until all relevant information, reports and final cost analysis are completed AND countrywide consultations are held. If government and the people are to make an informed and educated decision regarding this dam, it is the only logical action to take. If government refuses to do this then they should stop pissing on our heads and telling us it is raining. We will need some time to find a second job so we can pay our electric bill.

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