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November 17, 2001
Environmentalists Attempt to Dam Hydroelectric Project
    by William Baue

Canadian energy supplier Fortis, Inc. faces strong opposition from environmentalists over its proposed hydroelectric dam on the Macal River in Belize.

Fortis, Inc. (ticker: FTS.TO), an energy supplier based in Newfoundland, Canada, has encountered opposition to its proposed construction of the Chalillo dam on the Macal River in Belize. While the Belizean government approved the hydroelectric project on November 9, a group of 400 demonstrators simultaneously protested outside the prime minister’s office in Belmopan, the capital of Belize.

This demonstration represented one of the high points in the ongoing public relations campaign advanced by an international environmentalist coalition, which includes the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Probe International, and the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs (BACONGO.) The coalition has received high-profile support from celebrities such as Harrison Ford, who rose to fame portraying Han Solo in the movie Star Wars.

In response to this tactic, Fortis president and CEO Stan Marshall stated, “Look, I can’t directly take on Harrison Ford. What am I going to do, hire Darth Vader?” Certainly Mr. Marshall did not mean to suggest that Fortis is aligned with evil doers such as Darth Vader. Although many environmentalists might welcome this characterization, it oversimplifies the controversy.

The environmentalists claim that the Chalillo dam will damage the region’s ecosystems irreversibly while impacting the Belizean economy negatively. Fortis claims that the environmental impact falls within acceptable bounds, and that the dam will benefit the regional economy. The sides have been at loggerheads since Fortis entered the Central American country two years ago.

In October 1999, Fortis purchased a controlling interest in Belize Electricity Limited (BEL) from the Belizean government. In January 2000, BEL submitted an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the dam to the Belizean National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC), which rejected it for lack of information on the impact on wildlife.

Fortis then commissioned a $250,000 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which was financed by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA.) In their work on the assessment, scientists from London’s Museum of Natural History reported the dam would do “significant and irreversible” harm to at least 12 different endangered or rare species of wildlife, including the scarlet macaw, the jaguar and the freshwater crocodile.

Mr. Marshall called the study’s findings into question: “It’s my understanding that [the researchers] came under some tremendous pressure from these environmental groups, and to a certain degree capitulated to them,” he said. “It was noted by the people doing the study that it was factually incorrect.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Marshall submitted the EIA to the Belizean National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC), noting that the “decision to proceed with construction of the Chalillo dam rightfully resides with the people and democratic government of Belize.” On November 9, the NEAC approved the dam project. All nine governmental members of the committee voted in favor, while the two non-governmental representatives—one from the Association of National Development Agencies and the other from BACONGO—voted against it.

That same day, more than 400 protesters, comprised mostly of sugar cane farmers and Mayan Indians, demonstrated against the dam in Belmopan, carrying signs bearing slogans such as “Fortis is Raping Our Virgin Environment.” With such a strong show of opposition, environmentalists questioned whether the NEAC decision truly represented the will of the Belizean people.

Specifically, environmentalists railed against the fact that the NEAC did not open its consideration up to public input, instead offering public hearings after the fact.

“This decision contravenes Belize law,” said BACONGO Executive Director Jamillah Vasquez, “which requires that public hearings be conducted and all submissions from scientists and concerned citizens be reviewed by the committee.”

The controversy over the Chalillo dam is not over. While Fortis has the support of the Belize government, the outcome of recent project proposals in other countries suggests the dam's realization is not a given.

For example, Mitsubishi Corporation had the support of the Mexican government regarding the construction of a salt plant in Baja California Sur. The proposed plant, to be the largest in the world, was to be built in a lagoon that also happened to be a pristine gray whale breeding ground. After a five-year battle with environmentalists, movie stars, and scientists, the Mexican government decided to cancel the project in March of 2000.


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