for National Geographic Today
This summer, a Supreme Court justice in Belize will decide the fate of the remote Macal River Valley, a pristine rain forest that is among the most ecologically diverse on the planet home to one of the largest jaguar populations in Central America. It is the only known Belizean nesting site for the rare scarlet macaw, and shelters tapirs, howler monkeys and a host of other threatened and endangered creatures. The fate of ancient, unexcavated Mayan settlements dating from the fifth century also hangs in the balance.
On June 10, the court will begin hearings on two lawsuits filed by a coalition of environmental and business groups challenging the government's approval of a U.S. $30 million hydroelectric dam by Fortis, Inc. of Newfoundland, Canada. The suits charge that the project will destroy crucial habitat and raise electric bills by passing construction costs to customers. Two years ago Fortis purchased Belize Electric, the national power utility.
"This is one of the worst boondoggles I've ever seen in nearly two decades as an environmental lawyer," said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an environmental lawyer with the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "It's will make a few Canadian businessmen wealthier and impoverish the people of Belize for a generation. This is globalization at its worst."
Fortis CEO Stanley Marshall disagrees. "This dam provides the most economical power available for Belize." But on Disclosure, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation production, he admitted that Chalillo would "not necessarily lower electricity rates."
The dam has ignited a firestorm of controversy. More than a dozen advocacy groups in the U.S., Canada, and Belize organized a letter-writing campaign that delivered tens of thousands of opposition faxes and e-mails to Fortis, with celebrities like Harrison Ford lending their names to the cause.
NRDC joined the fight two years ago, adding the Macal River to its list of "biogems," environmentally critical regions threatened by development.
It's gotten nasty, with Belizean newspapers calling the NRDC and opponents of the project "lawbreakers" and "terrorists." The government would like the whole controversy over, according to Robert Leslie, Secretary to the Cabinet. "Some people want the entire country to become a zoo," he said. "We are simply trying to get electricity to people who don't have an ice cube's chance in hell of getting it. But if the courts say we stop construction of the dam, we will respect that decision."
Supporters argue that the dam is needed to feed an existing dam during the dry season and to ease dependence on Mexico, which supplies one third of the nation's electricity. John Briceno, Belizean minister of natural resources, is concerned because their current agreement expires in 2008.
The dam won't resolve energy problems, and environmentalists feel that there are better alternatives, like buying off-peak Mexican electricity or using sugar cane for cogeneration.
The Chalillo Dam was first proposed in the early 1990s, when a feasibility study warned against environmental damage. More recently, a study funded by the Canadian government buried recommendations by the Natural History Museum in London that the project be dropped, placing it in an appendix to their 1,500-page report.
The Belizean government gave conditional approval in November. "As far as the government is concerned, we have given permission for the project to start. There are a few little glitches here that can be ironed out as time goes on," said Leslie.