Press Release
April 22, 2001, Earth Day

Canadian Dam Threatens Central American Wildlife Haven:
International Scientists Issue Earth Day Warning

Belize City, Belize‹Many of the world's foremost forest experts and tropical ecologists issued a warning today ­Earth Day 2001‹that a Canadian company's plans for a hydro-electric dam in the small Central American country of Belize could lead to an incalculable loss for nature and endangered animal species. The scientists sent a joint letter to H. Stanley Marshall, CEO of Fortis, Inc., a billion-dollar energy company based in St. John's, Newfoundland calling the company's proposal to build a dam in Belize's Macal River Valley, "reckless". The scientists represent a virtual "Who's Who" of conservation biology, including David Suzuki ­leading Canadian spokesman for forest conservation‹, Peter Raven--President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science‹, Paul Ehrlich‹co-founder of the Society of Conservation Biology‹,and many experts in Central American animal species.

Canada's International Development Agency, (CIDA) has committed a quarter of a million dollars (Canadian) to "justification studies" for the dam, which are to be carried out by a British consulting firm, AMEC. According to the scientists' letter, this is not enough. The group is calling for a fully independent scientific panel to evaluate the environmental effects of the project, which they say would be "significant and long lasting". A report which accompanied the scientists' letter, lists more than a dozen endangered or rare animal species which could be affected by the dam. These include the jaguar, spider monkey, Solitary eagle, Scarlet Macaw‹with fewer than 250 individuals left in Belize--, and the tapir, an ancient relative of the horse and Belize's national animal. "This is arguably the wildest place left in Central America," according to Sharon Matola, Director of the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, and an expert in the biology of Scarlet Macaw and tapir. "Nowhere else do you see these species in such pristine habitat, and it is unconscionable that a Canadian company plans to flood this area."

Fortis, which owns the electricity utility in Belize, also owns utilities on the Atlantic coast of Canada, in New York State, and hotels and real estate including the Holiday Inn St. John's, and the Delta Sydney in Nova Scotia. Mr. Marshall has said that his company will develop the hydro-electric dam if it is "economically feasible and environmentally acceptable" (NY Times March 2, 2001, A6). In their letter, the scientists write that after "a century of experience with dams in tropical environments, it is our opinion that the Chalillo dam would impact the ecosystems of the region and many of the species which inhabit it."

Fortis, and the government of Belize, which is a minority partner in Belize Electricity Limited (BEL), Belize's only electricity utility, have proposed the "Chalillo" dam as an additional source of energy for this country of 250,000 people. The dam would be built upstream from an existing dam, which was owned until recently by North Carolina-based Duke Energy. Duke sold its interest in the dam to Fortis following thousands of letters protesting the company's possible involvement in the new dam scheme. Fortis now owns the majority of electricty production and all electricity distribution channels in Belize.

Opponents of the dam point to a study by economist John Reid of the Conservation Strategy Fund which demonstrates that construction of the dam would actually lead to an increase in electricity rates for Belizeans. "Even the studies conducted by consultants for Fortis show that the dam is 'not economically viable', but as a monopoly they'll just raise our rates," according to Matola. "We were promised cheaper electricity when Mollejon was built, and instead we have steadily seen our rates go up." Belizeans pay higher electricity rates than any of their neighboring Central American neighbors. Belizean conservationists point to energy production alternatives, including bagasse, a byproduct of the sugar cane industry, which they say would be cheaper, and support an ailing local industry which employs thousands of workers.

According to Jacob Scherr, Director of the International Program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the letter by prominent ecologists presents a challenge to the leaders of 33 countries who met this past week in Quebec City for the Summit of the Americas. "The ultimate choice, on this Earth Day," says Scherr "is whether we will leave space for nature and a livable planet for our children." The Natural Resources Defense Council has included Belize's Macal River Valley as one of twelve natural BioGems in the Americas, threatened by industrial projects.

Environmentalists from the Belize, Canada and the U.S. are organizing protests to be held at Fortis' annual shareholder meeting in St. John's, Newfoundland on May 16. "This is the other side of globalization," according to Scherr, "If large corporations can reach half way around the globe and threaten natural areas, local communities can now respond and take their concerns to the company's front steps."

For More Information Contact:
Ari Hershowitz, Natural Resources Defense Council;(202) 362-7990 or (202) 289-2388;
Grainne Ryder, Probe International, Toronto, Canada; 416 964 9223 ext. 228;
Elizabeth May, Sierra Club of Canada; 613 241 4611