Canadian dam threatens jaguar habitat

The Macal River Valley of Belize is one of the most rich and intact natural areas in all of Central America. Because of its remoteness, it has suffered from relatively little human disturbance, and is a refuge for many endangered species, including jaguars, whose habitat has been severely fragmented and restricted elsewhere in the region, scarlet macaws, and Belize's national animal, the tapir. The river valley contains a unique habitat type that exists in less than .1% of the surface area of the country.

Belize Electricity Limited (BEL), the majority of which is owned by Fortis, Inc. of St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, plans to build a hydro-electric dam which would flood important areas of the Macal River and its tributaries. The Belize government, a minority owner of BEL, has announced its "commitment" to the dam project, but there is growing opposition from Belizeans who are concerned that the "Chalillo dam", as it is known, would raise energy rates and threaten the many endangered species that depend on the Macal River Valley. Parts of three natural areas protected under Belizean law would be affected. International environmental groups have joined Belizeans to protect this important Biological Gem


The Chalillo Dam Project is:

Not economically feasible.

One of the primary purposes of the Chalillo dam would be to provide additional water storage during the dry season for an existing dam and generator downstream at Mollejon, also owned by Fortis. Although Fortis, as owner of the monopoly energy company in Belize, will profit no matter what the cost of energy from the dam, Belize could obtain energy more cheaply from other sources.

A number of economic studies, including a consultant's report commissioned by BEL, have concluded that the Chalillo dam is not economically viable. The Belize government has no comprehensive energy policy to weigh the relative merits of the project with less environmentally damaging and more economically beneficial alternatives.

Another potential investor, Duke Energy of North Carolina, USA sold its interests in Belize this January, following receipt of 20,000 letters from people concerned about the dam's environmental effects.

Environmentally Irresponsible.

The Chalillo dam would destroy 90 percent of a unique "floodplain" habitat type in Belize. It would flood the only known nesting sites in Belize for a subspecies of the Scarlet Macaw, a large colorful parrot that numbers fewer than 250 in the country, and 1000 in the region.

A feasibility study conducted by Agra Canadian International Power warned that "Overall impacts to wildlife populationsŠare anticipated to be major, negative [and] long term."

A recently completed study of the Macal River shows that the Mollejon dam has probably caused eutrophication on the river. Villagers downstream from the dam have experienced water quality problems and skin rashes since the dam was built. The effects of a second upstream dam could exacerbate these problems.

Groups call for Canadian company to withdraw plans.

Local conservationists are working together with international groups including the Sierra Club of Canada, Probe International, [Newfoundland Group] and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to protect the Macal River Valley. These groups, which represent more than 1 million members, wrote to Fortis CEO H. Stanley Marshall urging the cancellation of the dam.

In October 2000, the World Conservation Congress (WCC), representing hundreds of governments and conservation groups, adopted a motion calling on Fortis and the Belize government to abandon the their plans unless environmental studies show that the dam would not cause environmental degradation or harm endangered species.