Sunday, September 2, 2001
Hiding in plain sight

by William Ysaguirre

The proposed US$27.3 million hydroelectric project at Chalillo will
result in mortality of individuals of different species when their
habitat is changed and displaced by the dam and the reservoir behind it.

It will also result in degradation of the cultural landscape through the
disturbance and destruction of heritage features at a Mayan
archaeological site which will be submerged by the waters of the

These are but some of the impacts documented in the Environmental Impact
Assessment (EIA) of the Chalillo dam prepared by AMEC E&C Services Ltd.,
which the Belize Electricity Limited has invited the Belize public to
read and examine.

BEL is not required by law to do this, as any concerned citizen who
really wants to read the report may obtain a copy from the Department of
the Environment, though there would be some cost and a waiting period.

Copies at libraries

BEL has prepared photocopies of the report for distribution to all the
public libraries throughout the country,
The complete Environmental Impact Assessment report is five volumes
long. Each volume weighs about 3 pounds. The first volume, the main body
of the report, is 287 pages. With the glossary and bibliography it comes
to 327 pages. Reading through more than 1,500 pages of the report will
be no easy task for the alphabetically challenged.
So the facts about Chalillo are out in plain sight and accessible to all
Belizeans, but how many will bother to sift through the 15 pounds of
printed word to get to the kernel of truth which is hiding right there
in plain sight?

BEL also does not refer to the project as Chalillo, but as the Macal
River Upstream Storage Facility, MRUSF for short. But Belizeans use
acronyms all the time, right? BEL, BTL, SCUBA, BACONGO, CARICOM, EIA,
DEA,... Heck, by this time next year, MRUSF may even be household term.

The cover of the report says it was funded by CIDA (another acronym).
That's the Canadian International Development Agency, although BEL
engineer Joseph Sooknandan informed Reporter that BEL also paid part of
the cost of the EIA.

The EIA report examines 20 different ways in which the MRUSF at Chalillo
may have an impact on the environment.

These are: 1) karst geology 2) earthquake 3) soil quality & quantity 4)
Groundwater quality & quantity 5) surface water 6) surface water 7)
climate 8) Human health & safety 9) Species at risk 10) designated
protected areas 11) fishery resources 12) fish habitat 13) Water quality
14) Sediment quality & quantity 15) Economics 16) Labour employment 17)
population & services 18) Traffic & transportation 19) Tourism &
recreation and 20) archaeological sites.

Drowned Sites

The report concedes that archaeological sites will be drowned by the
'footprint' of the reservoir and states that the EIA results have been
forwarded to the Commissioner of Archaeology, but that he has yet to
determine any mitigation measures. An attempt to reach Commissioner
George Thompson found that he was out in the field and unavailable for
comment before press time.

The report offers as consolation the fact that the MRUSF will require
the construction of an all weather road, which will ease the movement of
tourists to another archaeological site, at Caracol. The BTB has been
actively promoting Caracol, but with limited success. Presently visits
to the site are discouraged by the poor roads, which cannot be used
during the wet season, except by 4x4 vehicles.

Visitor impact

In 1999 the number of visitors to Caracol was 4,800, and the report
projects that this number could be increased to 33,400 per annum by the
year 2015 with a good all weather road and marketing by BTB. But
building an all-weather road to Caracol does not require building a dam
at Chalillo.

Among the species of wildlife threatened by the dam development are the
Scarlet Macaw parrot and Morelet's crocodile. The report admits the
parrots will be adversely affected, with some qualification.

Macaw woes

Macaws occur throughout Central America, but the Belizean birds are
geographically isolated from other Macaw populations, which discourages
immigration and encourages genetic separation. The Belizean birds may
have bred themselves into a distinct subspecies. If they haven't, the
EIA says, their deaths will not be have significant impact on other
populations.In all this attention to detail, it may be difficult to focus of the
larger picture.

Global Warming

Conservationists are concerned about global warming, caused by gases
which destroy the ozone layer.

These gases are produced by burning fossil fuels, so a hydroelectric
power station, which burns no fuels, may seem environmentally sound.
Several researchers studying global warming have postulated that man, as
species, may have already passed the point of no return in terms of
global warming. Its effects: the melting of the polar ice caps, the rise
of sea levels, flooding of low-lying countries like the Netherlands and
Belize are prospects which haunt maritime communities..

Dinosaur Croc

The world is reminded of the fate of the dinosaurs which became extinct,
because they could not adapt to changes in the environment.

In examining the microcosm of the MRUSF 'footprint', AMEC & E & C
Services found that the Morelet's crocodile, a distant descendant of the
dinosaurs, lives in the upper reaches of the Macal River. In fact, it is
the only population of Morelet's in the world which lives that high
above sea level and in a fast flowing river.

Man is presently the dominant species in the world, but as the recent
crocodile attacks have shown, man can quickly get knocked to the bottom
of the food chain. If man is to avoid extinction, we must be not be

Say $60 million

Even if Belize ignores the ecological warnings, she should not ignore
the cost: US$27.3 million.

That's $54.6 million Belize dollars and does not include the Bze$2
million that it will cost to clear the area of the reservoir so that
decaying vegetation underwater does not produce greenhouse gases. But
some people are already 'rounding off this figure to $60 million in
anticipation of cost overruns.

On balance the MRUSF study of the environmental impacts at Chalillo
shows many negatives.

Chalillo, if it ever goes through, will not come cheap. The
environmental impacts show that Belize and Belizeans will pay a heavy
price indeed if the Government insists on pushing through with this
controversial plan.