like it or not, the Chalillo Dam is now a fact of life in Belize.
The construction of the controversial dam was completed in September
2005. The commissioning ceremony was held on November 15, 2005.
Just the facts, the project required 200,000 cubic yards of
concrete in order to retain 120 million cubic metres of water.
It was constructed by Chinese workers employed by Fortis, Inc.
of Canada, BECOL(Belize Electric Company Limited, a subsidiary
of Forits, Inc.) and BEL( Belize Electric Limited, a subsidiary
of Forits, Inc.), in concert with the Canadian International
Development Agency (CIDA) and SinoHydro, the biggest dam builder
in China. The dam itself is 30 meters high (about 150 feet at
it's highest point) and will produce a maximum of 5 Megawatts
fixed energy, both from Chalillo and by adding storage to the
Mollejon Hydroelectric Plant where the water will be stored
and converted to energy. It may provide up to 80 Gigawatt hours
of energy, mostly during times that other sources of energy
are far cheaper. As mentioned, the Chalillo Dam will store water
for the Mollejon Hydroelectric Plant, effectively doubling that
plant's capacity and anticipated to greatly reducing Belize's
reliance on costly fuel based energy.
In the beginning construction of the project was estimated
to cost US$30 million. Though Fortis/BECOL have never released
the actual figures, the numbers recently presented at the November
commissioning ceremony were in the neighbourhood of US$100 million,
over three times the initial estimates.
According to Ari Hershowitz who coordinates the www.StopFortis.org
website on behalf of the International Coalition to Save the
Macal River, " The number of species displaced is difficult
to calculate. The Natural History Museum report lists more than
50 mammal species in the Macal River Valley, 185 bird species
as well as large numbers of amphibians and reptiles. It is clear
that the dam has displaced Tapir, the Scarlet Macaw, and Jaguar,
as well as many other endangered species."
Mr. Horowitz in correspondence with BELIZEmagazine.com continued,
"The Chalillo dam has destroyed the wildest place in Central
America, eliminating a haven for wildlife that was created over
millions of years. Lost forever is the forest home for Tapir,
Belize's national animal, the main nesting sites for Scarlet
Macaw, Belize's national bird, and some of the most important
areas for Jaguar in the country. Belizeans and their children
will be forced to pay the highest electricity bills in the region
in order to enrich a few powerful figures in Belize and Canada.
The citizens of San Ignacio must now live in fear that a dam
built on unstable foundations may come crashing down any day,
wiping out the entire town. Greed and corruption laid waste
to the heart of Belize. But a young generation of Belizeans
grew up with the fight over Chalillo. They will reject the corrupt
politics of the older generation, and take the country back."
Ms. Sharon Matola, an independent and determined biologist
and former circus performer who is the director and founder
of the Belize Zoo, opinions about the dam is straightforward.
As she writes in a recent email, "Too bad that cat(regarding
the Jaguar photo posted on the www.StopFortis.org website) is
dead now, but at least we have higher electricity prices, a
decrease in the quality of the Macal River, and a future to
look forward to in Belize minus the Scarlet Macaw. What a trade-off.
Glad I new that area when it was so special."
The area near the new Chalillo Dam
on the Macal River in Belize
Ms. Matola continued, "Unfortunately the Belize Audubon Society
(BAS) provided "conditional support". This allowed the
CEO of Fortis, Stan Marshall to state to his shareholders in New
Foundland, during a meeting, that he did not know why the environmental
concerns were a consideration, after all, the oldest conservation
organization in Belize, the Belize Audubon Society, supports this
development scheme. Had BAS taken a different stand, one based
upon looking at the various
reports generated by trusted studies, that element of persuasion
CEO Marshall to his shareholders, would not, could not, have occurred."
BELIZEmagazine.com was contacted by The Belize Audubon Society
(BAS) in order to be allowed to respond to Ms. Matola's comments.
Ms. Tanya Williams Thompson, Advocacy Manager for the Belize
Audubon Society wrote, " The Belize Audubon Society (BAS)
has a long tradition of leadership on environmental issues,
and has strived for the past 36 years to achieve its mission
to “create a balance between people and the environment,
and an improved quality of life for all”. This task is
often difficult in Belize where there is an urgent need for
economic development and yet our natural assets are universally
treasured. In the case of the Macal River Upstream Storage Facility
(Chalillo), Belize is using a renewable energy source ‘hydro-power’
reducing the use of fossil fuel and associated air pollution
"BAS conditionally approved the Environmental Impact Assessment
(EIA) for the Chalillo Dam in 2001. The Society’s conditional
acceptance of the EIA was based on BECOL’s adherence to
the Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP) developed by the Department
of the Environment and the members of NEAC. The following conditions
were to be strictly adhered to: performance bond after construction,
emergency management mechanism, complete hydrological monitoring,
monitoring of biodiversity and continuous public information
sessions. To the best of our knowledge, these conditions have
been implemented and the Dept. of the Environment will continue
to monitor the Dam for the next two years."
"The Belize Audubon Society’s final decision on the
Chalillo Dam was based upon objective evaluation of every aspect
of the project. In 1998 as representatives of BACONGO, BAS was
part of the National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC)
team that reviewed the first version of the Chalillo EIA. At that
time we noted that the environmental impacts could not be properly
reviewed because the wildlife assessments had not been completed.
Subsequently BEL through BECOL and the Canadian environmental
consulting agency, AMEC undertook the necessary studies to complete
the wildlife assessments as stipulated by the Department of the
Environment (DoE) and NEAC. In September 2001 the revised document
was submitted to the NEAC as required by the EIA regulations of
1995. A 60-day period was given for the general public to comment
on the document and to allow NEAC members to thoroughly review
"Furthermore, having been involved in the Chalillo debate
since 1998, the Advocacy team, Board of Directors and Executive
Director of BAS were able to evaluate the EIA objectively. However
we also requested assistance from other experts including a local
economist, a local social scientist, the Cayo-based organization,
Friends for Conservation and Development and the international
conservation organization the World Conservation Union (IUCN).
"Many of us voiced our concerns about the possible impacts
on wildlife in the Chalillo area. But what we found during the
process of reviewing the EIA is that there had been a lot of misinformation
circulating regarding these impacts, not only in Belize but also
throughout the world. The wildlife studies that were conducted
by Britain’s Natural History Museum actually found only
four nests of the Scarlet Macaw in the area that would be inundated
by water. Although CITES lists the Scarlet Macaw as “threatened
throughout its range” (not “endangered”, which
is a more serious category), the population of Scarlet Macaws
in Belize is stable. According to the EIA, the main impact on
wildlife will not be death or extinction, but displacement and
changes in ecology. There are several other locations within the
country that have the same forest type as that found in the Chalillo
area; the same forest type favored by the Scarlet Macaw."
"BAS’ position is that indeed there are no ecosystems
or wildlife species in the area to be inundated that are not represented
elsewhere in the country. BAS is satisfied that with more than
40% of Belize’s land under some form of environmental protection,
we are more than able to maintain healthy biodiversity of all
of the species that populate the land and water, whether or not
the project was approved."
"It is BAS’ position that the most serious environmental
problem facing Belize is not a single development project like
Chalillo but poverty. Poor people will often do whatever it
takes to make a living without much regard for long-term environmental
quality, and this is hardly surprising. The real environmental
challenge we therefore face in Belize is to bring prosperity
to the people of this nation so that they have more choices
in how they sustain themselves, and are more able to pay for
environmental conservation programs."
"The Belize Audubon Society as one of Belize’s leading
environmental conservation organization and as a representative
of the Association of National Development Agencies (ANDA) on
the NEAC views its role as continuing to support the Dept. of
the Environment in its monitoring of the Chalillo Dam over the
next two years."
Stan Marshall, the President of Fortis, Inc. at the commissioning
ceremony openly admitted, "We regret not having reached
this milestone earlier. The burden of today's high oil prices
weighs heavy on us."
Hon. Ralph Fonseca, the Belizean Minister of Public Utilities
and a driving force behind the Chalillo Dam was very direct
to those environmental groups and individuals that continue
to oppose the project. Mr. Fonseca said at the same commissioning
ceremony, "Today punctuates the defeat of those who cannot
relate to the concept of sustainable development, where people
must be allowed to wisely tap into the vast potential of their
country's natural resources to advance their own human fulfilment
and a better life. Hopefully today they realize that they are
sticking a finger in the eyes of all Belizeans when they oppose
bold initiatives to advance our developing economy. This project
is two years late, that is why I said it is almost too late
but better late than never."
Built with all the pomp and pageantry of the commissioning
ceremony, Lyn Young, the CEO of BEL, openly had very little
good news to deliver to the people of Belize. As Lyn Young put
it, "My regret is that this didn't happen two years ago
because as I stand here now, we are talking about asking the
government for another rate increase. I know its not good news
but that's the truth. I think its going to be at least 10% and
what I hope is that in two or three years we'll see things start
to come down back again. But I think in the short term, we are
looking at high energy prices. And its not only Belize of course,
its all over the world. We are looking at high energy prices
for at least another two to three years."
Even with the projected millions of dollars to be saved by
The Chalillo Dam as Belize shifts from it's dependence upon
Mexico for it's energy to that produced by the Chalillo dam,
BEL has already made it's rate increase request to the Government
of Belize and requested a 10% price increase to be levied against
the people of Belize. The expected increases have been approved
as of this writing.
According to their website BEL is 67% owned by Fortis Inc.
and "meets the country’s peak demand of almost 61
megawatts (MW) from multiple sources. These sources include
electricity purchases from Belize Electric Company Ltd. (BECOL),
which operates the Mollejon Hydroelectric facility in Western
Belize; from Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE),
the Mexican state owned electricity company; and from BEL's
gas turbine unit and diesel fired generation. All major load
centers are connected to the country’s national electricity
system, which in turn is connected to the Mexican electricity
grid, allowing BEL to optimize its power supply options."
According to the StopFortis.org website, an opposition coalition
of environmental organizations from around the globe (http://www.stopfortis.org/coalition.html),
"Fortis Inc. is the owner of both the energy distribution
company in Belize (Belize Electricity Limited, BEL) and the
largest energy supplier in the country (Belize Electricity Company,
BECOL). Between Fortis-BEL and Fortis-BECOL, Fortis companies
generate 48% of the electricity sold in Belize, with the rest
coming from a connection to the power grid in Mexico. The monopoly
control Fortis exerts in Belize allows it to charge Belizeans
the highest prices for electricity in all of Central America,
and many times higher than prices charged by Fortis companies
in Canada. Fortis’ profit in Belize is also far higher
than profit from its operations in Canada: at least four times
higher per kilowatt hour of electricity sold.
Fortis-BECOL’s plan to build the Chalillo dam, upstream
from the existing dam it owns on the Macal River, would allow
Fortis-BECOL to more than double its earnings, and places all
the risk on the people of Belize. The price of electricity from
the new project is higher than the price from the existing dam,
which is already the most expensive off-peak energy Belizeans
The Government and
people of Belize will be paying the Canadian Fortis group in US
dollars for energy produced by the Belize's Macal River, a precious
Belizean natural resource. For the harsh reality of the deal,
the Government of Belize in February 2001 signed a deal with Fortis
that gives the energy giant exclusive rights over the energy produced
by The Chalillo Dam for the next 50 years. And so during the period
when oil prices we continue to increase drastically due to oil
reserves dimensioning globally, Belize is locked into a deal that
the next generation of Belizeans will be forced to pay for.
For Fortis, well the deal was all about the return.
Although Fortis President Stan Marshall said he has a personal
connection to Belize by way of a vacation home he owns in Placencia,
it was still a bottom line issue for the company. In Mr. Marshall's
own words, "We need to get returns because we've invested
a great deal of money here and like anybody that's invested money,
we have to get a return on that. But the price of electricity
is fixed. This plant will be here for a hundred years. I guarantee
you that five years from now people will be marvelling at how
cheap power is from this plant. Fifty years from now they'll say
the people who built this dam didn't get much benefit from it,
its all the people of Belize. So what we'll get is just a return
of the money we've invested, the rate of return, that's all."
All said, Fortis, Inc. will be a paid a minimum
return of 15% on their estimated investment of US$100,000,000.00.
In the end, we all need to wait and hear what the people of Belize
will in fact be saying about The Chalillo Dam in five years and
in fifty years. Right now, one month after the commissioning of
the controversial dam one thing is absolutely crystal clear as
to what the people of Belize are saying, "our electric bills
are going up, again".
|Photos of the Chalillo
Dam site courtesy of Sharon Matola, The