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
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.
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
“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.