Chalillo dam proposal in Belize

A five year old's reaction when told about Fortis' plan to build a dam in the Belizean rainforest.


The Macal River Valley of Belize is one of the most intact and rich natural areas in all of Central America. Because of its remoteness, it has suffered relatively little human disturbance, and is a refuge to many endangered species whose habitat has been severely fragmented and restricted elsewhere. The river valley contains a unique riparian floodplain vegetation type which exists in only .03% of the surface area of the country [Meerman, J., 2000]. Plans by Belize Electricity Limited (BEL), 63% owned by Fortis, Inc. of Canada, to build a hydro-electric dam on the Raspaculo branch of the Macal River, would flood this unique habitat, and put at risk many of the endangered species which depend on it. The "Chalillo dam" would flood parts of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, Chiquibul Forest Reserve and Chiquibul National Park

The dam would be built upstream from an existing dam at Mollejon, owned by Duke Energy International of Texas. One of the primary purposes of the Chalillo dam would be to provide additional water storage for this downstream dam. While this would result in an increase in energy production, and could benefit Duke Energy, Belize could obtain energy more cheaply from other sources.

A number of economic studies have shown that the Chalillo dam is not an economically viable project for Belize. No comprehensive energy policy currently exists for Belize, which could put the Chalillo project in the context of less environmentally damaging, and more economically beneficial alternatives.

In January, 2000, BEL submitted an Environmental Impact Assessment for the dam proposal to the NEAC, an environmental review panel in Belize. The EIA did not include studies on the impacts on wildlife, and was returned to BEL for completion of these studies. Fortis, Inc. and its consultants have recently obtained funding from the Canadian International Development Agency for these studies to support its project application. Nearly ten years of existing studies on jaguar, tapir and Scarlet Macaw in the Macal River Valley indicate the importance of this area for these species, and no reference to these studies was made in BEL's EIA submission to NEAC.

Concerned that proponents of the Chalillo dam are moving forward without considering the economic future or natural heritage of their country, many conservationists in Belize, including the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, and BACONGO, an alliance of conservation groups throughout the country, have asked for international support in stopping this destructive project.

In support of these Belizean groups, a motion was adopted by the World Conservation Congress in Amman, Jordan (October 4-11) highlighting the extreme natural value of the Macal River Valley. The Congress is a meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world's largest conservation-oriented organization. The motion calls on Fortis, Inc. and the Belize government to cancel the Chalillo project unless fully transparent and participatory environmental studies show that the project would not cause environmental degradation or harm to endangered species.

There has been an effort to suppress debate over the dam project, including the consideration of this motion before IUCN. In August, 2000, one government spokesman, in an article published in the Belize Times, a government-owned newspaper labeled Belizean NGOs, and their supporters as "Enemies of the State" for voicing opposition to the dam.

Chalillo dam is Not Economically Viable

The Chalillo dam project is a lose-lose plan for Belize. A study by John Reid, economist at the Conservation Strategy Fund concludes: "The Chalillo dam proposal is not economically viable. The economic cost of $20.4 million would exceed benefits by approximately $5.4 million." [Reid, 1999] Current estimates of the dam's cost have already increased to $30 million US, which means that probable losses from the project are even greater than previously estimated.

Even consultants for the project proponents could not justify the Chalillo project's economics: "The benefits of the Chalillo dam project are significantly lower than the costs and the project is not economically attractive with the present Mexican prices. The Mexican prices would have to increase by approximately 70% from their current levels before the project comprising the dam only becomes viable." [Agra-CI, 1998]

Energy from Mexico, imported through the recently completed transmission line is far less expensive than hydro-power, and other sources, such as Biomass energy, can be developed within Belize. A conference on energy alternatives was held in February, 2000 by the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs (BACONGO). This conference urged Belize to create a comprehensive energy policy, and review all energy generation options.

All economic studies have reached the same conclusion: the Chalillo dam is a poor economic investment for Belize.

Downstream effects: Water Quality

A recently completed study of the Macal river [Eaton, D., Palacio, V., 2000] shows that the Mollejon dam has probably caused eutrophication on the river. The study found elevated mineral nitrogen and soluble reactive phosphorous levels ­indicators of eutrophication‹ on the river downstream from the existing Mollejon dam, but not upstream, indicating that the dam is likely responsible. Residents of the village of Cristo Rey, downstream from the Mollejon dam, have complained that after it was built, they have suffered from water quality problems, and severe skin rashes as a result of swimming in the Macal River. The effects of a second upstream dam with a large storage facility could exacerbate these problems.

Chalillo dam threatens habitat for ten CITES-listed species

A pre-feasibility study completed for the Belize Electricity Board identified ten species known to occur in the Macal River Valley which are listed as ten species found there are listed as threatened under CITES. Eight of these are protected under Belizean law, and seven of these are listed as "endangered" in the U.S. endangered species act. [CI Power Services, 1992, Table 31]

Threat to jaguar: A "festering wound" in one of the largest intact jaguar sites

The area which would be flooded lies adjacent to the Cockscomb Basin Reserve, the only nature reserve in the world set aside specifically for jaguar protection. The dam would destroy important feeding areas for the jaguar, would fragment its habitat, and would be a "festering wound" in one of the largest intact jaguar sites in the world, according to a letter by Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, Director of Science at the Wildlife Conservation, who was instrumental in establishing the Cockscomb Reserve.

Threat to tapir: Dam would flood one of the few remaining strongholds of tapir habitat

The IUCN Tapir Action Plan identifies the Upper Raspaculo River, in the Macal River Valley, as critical habitat for the Central American tapir. Studies of the area have found healthy tapir populations in this area, in contrast to the majority of its former range in Central America, where its habitat has been destroyed. The IUCN Tapir Action plan identifies construction of a dam on the Upper Raspaculo River as a serious threat to the tapir's habitat.

Both the Tapir Preservation Fund, and the IUCN's Tapir Specialist Group have expressed their concern that the dam could put remaining tapir populations at risk. [letters from Sheryl Todd, President, Tapir Preservation Fund; Sharon Matola, Chairperson, Tapir Specialist Group]

Threat to Scarlet Macaw: Dam would flood the only known Scarlet Macaw nesting sites in Belize

The dam would flood the only known nesting sites for the Scarlet Macaw, in Belize [2]. The Scarlet Macaw, a large, brightly colored parrot, is listed under CITES I, and the Scarlet Macaw found in Guatemala, Belize and Mexico is considered an even more threatened subspecies, listed as endangered in the IUCN Parrot Conservation Action. It is estimated that there are fewer than 250 Scarlet Macaws remaining in Belize.

Until recent studies, it was thought that Scarlet Macaws do not breed in Belize. However, active nest sites have been found and studied over the course of three years [Katherine Renton, 1998]. All of these sites are in the area which would be flooded by the Chalillo dam. Scarlet Macaws nest in specialized trees which are found almost exclusively in the habitat which would be flooded. Destruction of their nests and of this habitat could eliminate the breeding population in Belize. [Katherine Renton, 1998; Letter from Eduardo Inigo, 2000]

Threats to other species

Existing studies of jaguar, tapir and Scarlet Macaw indicate the serious threat posed to these species. Dozens of other threatened and endangered species are threatened by plans to build the Chalillo dam, and virtually no studies have been done to document the extent of damage which would be done.

Status of the project

As part of the project approval process, an Environmental Impact Assessment needs to be submitted to the NEAC environmental review board in Belize. Belize Electricity Limited submitted an EIA to NEAC in January, 2000. This EIA ommitted wildlife studies which were published in 1992 pre-feasibility Study prepared by Canada International Power for the Belize Electricity Board. NEAC did not accept this EIA, since it lacked any information on wildlife. Under current Belizean law, final decisions are at the discretion of the relevant government Minister, who can overrule NEAC and any environmental regulations.

Agra-CI, consultant for Fortis, Inc., has apparently received approval for a grant from CIDA to perform wildlife studies to support the Chalillo dam project. Freedom of Information Requests to CIDA have confirmed that the grant is being provided for these studies, but CIDA refused to identify the recipient of the funds or the scope of the studies.

Chalillo dam facts:

Chalillo Estimated Construction Costs $30 million U.S.

Chalillo power output 9MW

Probability that dam will lose money 97% (Conservation Strategy Fund, John Reid)

Estimated financial loss $3.5 million U.S. (Agra-CI)

$5.4 million U.S. (CSF, John Reid)

Number of CITES listed species in area

to be flooded 10

Number of Scarlet Macaws left in Belize <250


Eaton, W. and Palacio, V., 2000 Nutrient and Microbial Analysis of Watersheds From the

Macal River Area of Belize Above and Below The Mollejon Dam, Mesoamericana

Meerman, J. ,2000, from World Bank vegetation studies, personal communication

Reid, J., Rosenfeld, A., and Pendleton, L., Economic Review of the Proposed Chalillo Dam, 1999 report prepared for the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs

Renton, K., Ecology and Conservation of the Scarlet Macaw In Belize; Report to the Forestry Department, Conservation Division, Ministry of Natural Resources, Belize; Wildlife Preservation Trust International report, 1998

a) "Little is known of the Scarlet Macaw in Belize, and it is estimated that the remaining population may number only a few hundred birds (Mallory 1993)" (p.2, cites Mallory, E.P. , 1993 Scarlet Macaws in the Upper Raspaculo, Belize. Manomet Observatory, Manomet, MS).

"Prior to the current study, there was concern that the Scarlet Macaw in Belize may not represent a breeding population (Kainer 1991). During the pilot study of March-June 1998, three confirmed Scarlet Macaw nests were located along river floodplains in the Chiquibul National Park."(p.4)

Feasibility study, Phase I , Agra-CI Power, Canada for Belize Electricity Limited, 1998

Letter from Alan Rabinowitz, Director of Science, Wildlife Conservation Society:

"The Chalillo project sits in the middle of some of the country's best jaguar habitat and could definitely affect jaguar dispersal patterns and genetic exchange into and out of from the Cockscomb Basin, currently recognized as one of the world's premier sites for jaguar conservation. At the very least, this project would disrupt the integrity of the jaguar's habitat in Belize and would be a festering wound in the body of one of the largest intact jaguar sites throughout their entire range."

Letter from Sharon Matola, Chairperson, IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group

"The area which would be flooded, should the proposed hydro-project, Chalillo, go forward, is critical habitat for the Central American Tapir, Tapirus bairdii. Both Joe Fragoso, PhD., who did studies on T. Bairdii in the 1980s, and myself, having undertaken over eight years of field studies in this region, have found tapirs living there in robust populations."

Letter from Sheryl Todd, President Tapir Preservation Fund

"I am aware of the proposed dam project for the Macal River in Belize. This concerns me very much, as the area is one of the very few strongholds for the Central American, or Baird's tapir (Tapirus bairdii). The Macal River's importance for sustaining remaining tapir populations is strongly indicated in the IUCN Tapir Action Plan, SPECIES newsletter, and from field investigations undertaken by Joe Fragoso, PhD, and by current TSG Chair, Sharon Matola."

Macal Hydroelectric Development Environmental Impact Assessment; Rubber Camp and Chalillo Schemes, Pre-Feasibility Study: Prepared for Belize Electricity Board by Canadian International Power Services, Inc. (1992)

a) Table 31‹Species with Special Conservation Status (1992) which are known to occur in the proposed development area.

b) "If the Raspaculo area experiences significant reservoir flooding and increased access, then several sensitive species (e.g., Morelet's crocodile, Scarlet macaw, and Keel-billed Motmot) will experience major impacts that may affect the existing populations at an international level. The Raspaculo area may be the last area that can support viable populations of these species. Overall impacts to wildlife populations in the study area are anticipated to be major, negative, long term and local to regional." (3-73)

c) "At both sites the threatened Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) was presentŠBecause of the Scarlet Macaw's habitat in Belize is now limited to the Macal and Raspaculo drainage, flooding will undoubtedly displace it and its future survival is uncertain." (3-68) cites Barlow, S.C., and G.B. Caddick, 1989. Report on the status of the Scarlet Macaw, Ara macao, in Belize, Central America. Report for the Center for the Study of Tropical Birds.

"The Scarlet Macaw is a species of critical concern. It has been observed in the upper Raspaculo and along the Macal River, which may be one of the last areas capable of supporting this species. Creation of the reservoir will flood existing riparian vegetation which appears to provide necessary food for this species." (3-69)

"Existing riparian habitat along the upper Macal and Raspaculo rivers will be lost as a result of the reservoir which will significantly affect riparian-dependent species such as tapir, morelet's crocodiles, scarlet macaw, keel-billed mot-mot, and a number of butterflies and moths. Upstream impacts will include altered river flow regimes, inundation and flooding of more than 90% of existing riparian vegetation in the study areaŠ" (4-1)

"The reservoir will flood approximatelyy 1170 ha or over 90 percent of all existing riparian vegetation in the study area." (3-50) Cites Rogers, A.D.F. and D.A. Sutter (eds.) 1991. The upper Raspaculo River basin Belize‹Central America. Report of the Joint Services Scientific Expedition to the upper Raspaculo January-February 1991. The Natural History Museum.

g) Map 2, showing proposed reservoir flooding area.

Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan: Tapirs; Daniel M. Brooks, Richard E. Bodmer and Sharon Matola, editors.

"The wild lands still existing in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize comprise more than 50% of total habitat available for Baird's tapir (March 1992)" (p.30).

"An area of particular interest is the Upper Raspaculo River, which drains into the Macal River and experiences flood conditions annually. Prolific growth of secondary vegetation results in favored foraging area by tapirsŠDue to its remote location, absence of human presence and pressures, and abundance of secondary growth vegetation, the Baird's tapir can be found in considerable numbers." (p.35)