Information provided by Ari Hershowitz, Natural Resources Defense
Council for the Coalition to Save the Macal River Valley, Belize
London, December 5th, 2003 - Hearings before the Privy Council of
London came to a close yesterday in the lawsuit against the
environmental approval of the Chalillo hydroelectric dam in Belize,
proposed by Newfoundland-based Fortis, Inc. While the outcome is
uncertain, it was clear that the judges were troubled that the project
was approved with key issues still unresolved. The judges also
criticized the government for its failure to reveal key documents on
the economics and safety of the project. However, the court will also
consider a plea from Belize's Attorney General to let the project go
forward despite these concerns, because of the size of the project and
the fact the company had already invested millions of dollars in it.
The court may decide on the case as early as December 25th, though
it may take considerably longer.
This was the first environmental lawsuit to reach the Privy Council
of England, and in two days of hearings, the courtroom was treated to
fireworks rarely seen at these levels of the legal system. It was also
the first challenge to a major decision of the government of Belize,
and many in Belize are hoping this case will make the government more
The case already achieved a victory for justice when the government
was forced to repeal an unconstitutional law, which purported to ensure
the construction of the dam "notwithstanding" the decision of any
court. The law was repealed just in time for the first day of hearings
in this case, in response to a strong warning from the Privy Council
this August. The government has also been forced to reveal key
documents, including the geology study that Belizean communities
downstream from the proposed dam had requested for more than a year.
In addition, the hearing helped place the dam project on trial in
the court of public opinion worldwide: many of the top Canadian
newspapers featured the campaign, it was the lead story on the national
CBC afternoon and evening news programs, and it was reported on BBC
World Service. Below is a partial list of the articles on this case,
and a copy of an editorial by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. as it appeared in
the Toronto Star, published this week.
Also, hundreds of people joined the petition on the StopFortis
website www.stopfortis.org, which has now reached 8,000 signatures. You
can also take action at www.savebiogems.org/macal.
First day: Concealment of geological report on dam foundations
The first day of hearings was dedicated to an expos╚ of how the
government and Fortis covered up a key report which showed that their
assessment of the geological foundations of the dam site were wrong.
The report, commissioned by Belize's technical committee in February
2002 and completed in May 2002, had been requested for a year and a
half by environmental groups and communities downstream of the dam, but
was only released last week by lawyers for the government. The report
demonstrated major flaws in the company's original assessment of the
proposed foundations of the dam including: 1) An incorrect claim that
the dam site was made of granite (in fact it is made of sandstone and
weak shale); 2) A map in which the company removed a fault line just
upstream of the dam site; and 3) The potential for the proposed dam
reservoir to "leak like a sieve" because of limestone caves upstream.
The concern was that this project would be like the "disastrous" dam
projects in Guatemala, built in the same limestone system.
The judges expressed strong dissatisfaction for the way the
government and company had concealed information and had to have
it "squeezed out in dribs and drabs." Counsel for the Belizean groups
argued that if the report had been released earlier, it could have made
a difference in the court decisions in Belize that preceded this one,
and may have convinced the Privy Council to grant an injunction in May.
BACONGO also argued that the government decided to build the dam
without having critical information on whether the dam would cause the
endangered Scarlet macaw to go extinct in Belize, and what important
Maya archaeological sites in the region would be flooded by the project.
Second day: Belize government pleas to allow construction
to continueˇeven if approval was illegal.
Belize's Attorney General joined the government's counsel, Edward
Fitzgerald (known in the United Kingdom for defending death row
prisoners before the Privy Council) in a plea to the court not to
overturn the decision to build the dam even if the approval process was
illegal. Earlier, the judges had questioned Fortis' attorney, Rabinder
Singh, on the extraordinarily favorable terms Belize gave to Fortis
(including guarantees of high rates of return for 50 years, tax-free
status, and guarantees that the government would waive any laws to
accommodate the company). The Attorney General responded that Belize
needed to give such favorable contracts to foreign companies to attract
foreign investment. Belizeans in the courtroom cringed, knowing the
history of corruption in the country.
The Attorney General also argued that the dam would make
Belize "energy independent," and cited inflated figures for the amount
of electricity the dam would produce.
The government of Belize's optimistic claims for the Mollejon dam,
located downstream of the proposed dam, never materialized. That dam
produces only three-fourths of the electricity its proponents had said
it would, and is now the major reason for the high rates of electricity
in Belizeˇthe highest of any country in Central America. BACONGO's
attorney, Richard Clayton, pointed out that the dam would only produce
5 MW of electricity, enough to power three medium-sized hotels, and
less than one year's growth in Belize's energy needs.
The government also argued that the flaws in the assessment of the
dam's foundations were not important, and that granite and sandstone
were made of the same materialˇand therefore essentially the same.
Evidence in the court showed that this was like claiming that diamonds
and coal, or water and ice are "essentially the same" because their
composition is identical. BACONGO also argued that a change in dam
foundations requires a change in dam design. The difference in dam
foundations could add to the costs, and undermine the safety of the
Demanding justice from Fortis and the Belizean government
The Coalition to Save the Macal River Valley will continue to
demand accountability from Fortis and the government, through full
public disclosure and debate. The Coalition will seek to obtain secret
contracts and documents about this project, which the government and
Fortis are still keeping from the people of Belize. The Privy Council
has helped bring out much of the truth about this project. Full
disclosure will show how unsafe, uneconomic and environmentally
damaging this project is, and the people of Belize will reject it.
Canada under fire over dam
Ottawa agency complicit in Belize plan that will endanger local people
and environment, writes Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
As Paul Martin prepares to take the reins as Canada's new prime
minister in Ottawa this month, Canada's current foreign environmental
policies will be on trial in London.
Tomorrow, a panel of five Privy Councilors, Britain's highest court
of appeal, will hear a case brought by Belizean environmentalists and
business owners against the approval of Canadian-backed plans to build
a 50-meter-high concrete hydroelectric dam in the rainforests of this
small Central American country.
If completed, the Chalillo dam would not only flood one of the
world's most important wilderness areas and drown irreplaceable traces
of the ancient Maya civilization, but will put 12,000 people living
downstream at risk.
The project sponsor, Newfoundland-based Fortis, Inc., monopoly
owner of Belize's electricity utility, has close ties to the
governments in Ottawa and Newfoundland, and just bought up distribution
utilities in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.
Two years ago, Fortis rammed approval of the project through using
a flawed environmental assessment that was secretly paid for by
Canada's foreign aid arm, the Canadian International Development
This deal was part of CIDA's private-sector branch "CIDA, Inc.,"
whose real mission appears to be "poverty"ˇalleviation for some of
Canada's largest and most powerful companiesˇthe Halliburtons of
In papers submitted to the court, Fortis now admits that the
taxpayer-sponsored report was wrong about the geological foundations
underpinning the dam. The report said the dam would be built on solid
granite, when, in fact, the site is made of fractured sandstone and
shaleˇa dam designed on the basis of the CIDA report could collapse and
cause disaster downstream.
When CIDA, Inc. was confronted with this, and other flaws in its
report, last year on CBC's Disclosure, the agency denied it did
anything wrong. Now the dam is under construction, and the consequences
of CIDA's flawed assessment are becoming evident. The low flow of the
river, reaching just knee deep in the rainy season, makes it apparent
that the dam will not provide a fraction of the electricity CIDA's
Contractors at the site have found no granite at the site to crush
as an ingredient to make concrete for the dam. In addition, locals say
that seismic tremors caused a 20-meter-deep gaping hole to open at the
site, and construction workers drilled through to water flowing
underground. Experts warn that this could drain the dam's reservoir
before it is filled.
And, most troubling, the continued uncertainty about the dam's
foundations has raised the specter of dam collapse, and potential
liability for Fortis and the Canadian government. Regrettably, CIDA
continues to bury its head in the sand, and Fortis seems undeterred.
That's because Fortis seems to be protected. A 50-year contract
with the Belizean government guarantees the company at least US$200
million in electricity sales from the dam, by forcing the dam's high
costs onto Belizean ratepayers. Already, Belizeans pay the highest
electricity rates of any country in Central Americaˇnearly two times
more than their neighbors in Guatemala or Mexico, even though half of
their electricity is imported at low cost from Mexico.
Tomorrow, the Privy Council will be asked to stop the dam's
construction until proper studies are completed and Belizeans' right to
a fair and impartial public hearing is upheld. But Canada should not
wait for the Privy Council's decision to live up to its
responsibilities and repudiate past mistakes. "Poverty alleviation"
should not be a cloak for lopsided contracts that provide huge profits
to a Canadian company and endanger and further impoverish the people of
The new prime minister will be off to a good start if his minister
for international development ends CIDA's complicity with Fortis,
recalls its flawed taxpayer-sponsored report and works to protect the
people of Belize, as well as the tapirs, Scarlet macaws and jaguars
that are at risk from this unjustifiable dam.