On the week of February 20th, 2003, Hollywood movie star, Cameron Diaz, vacationed in San Pedro after doing research on the controversial Chalillo Dam project, in the Cayo District. Miss Diaz’s unease mirrored that of other famous people such as Harrison Ford and Robert Kennedy Jr. who expressed their concern for environmental damage incurred by the project. They and many others joined the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs (BACONGO) in opposing the government’s plan to build the Chalillo Dam, no matter what the cost, as an alternative power source for the country.
Despite all the negative feedback, Chalillo became a reality with construction being completed in September. On November 15th, 2005, the official commissioning ceremony was held at the facility in the Mountain Pine Ridge area.
The dam stands at 150 feet tall, spans 420 feet across and was constructed at a cost of US$100 million. Stan Marshall, President of Fortis, who owns Chalillo Dam, cut the ribbon along with Investment Minister Ralph Fonseca. During the ceremonies Marshall stated, “It is undoubtedly a monumental achievement. The official commissioning of the Chalillo project represents a quantum leap on the road to energy self-reliance. With the Chalillo reservoir already over 50% full, the country could sustain itself for an extended period if the connection to Mexico were disrupted.” Honorable Fonseca added, “Today punctuates the defeat of those who cannot relate to the concept of sustainable development, where people must be allowed to wisely tap into the vast potential of their country’s natural resources to advance their own human fulfillment and a better life. Hopefully today they realize that they are sticking a finger in the eyes of all Belizeans when they oppose bold initiatives to advance our developing economy.”
According to George and Candy Gonzalez, who live in Cayo and have opposed the project from the beginning, the battle is far from over. The Gonzalez’s not only objected to the dam from an environmental stand point, but as a safety issue as well. In an interview with Channel 7 News, the Gonzalez’s expressed concern for how the whole process of public information was shared during the planning stages, and now that the dam has been built they wonder what the safety of the fish and water quality will be.
Not only has the project been a costly one to the environment, it will affect the wallet of all residents in Belize who pay for electricity. Even with the $4 million in savings that the dam will provide, Belize Electricity Limited (BEL) will be asking the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) for an increase in electrical fees. According to Lyn Young, Chief Executive Officer at BEL, the proposed increase will be at least 10%. “[…] what I hope is that in two or three years we’ll see things start to come down back again. But I think in the short term, we are looking at high energy prices. And it is not only Belize of course, it’s all over the world. We are looking at high energy prices for at least another two to three years.”
Why would BEL be asking for an increase? Young stated that the increase is to pay accrued debts, “What we are applying for right now is the build-up that has built because remember we kept holding back from increasing rates and what the PUC had done was setting up a deferred account. So the unfortunate situation is that we have like $26 million in this deferred account, which is unsustainable.”