Goodbye Jaguars, Belize dam approved
A high court in London Thursday decided the fate of a rainforest valley in the Central American nation of Belize inhabited by endangered jaguars, tapirs and scarlet macaws. Ruling in the first environmental case it has ever considered, the Privy Council decided that a hydroelectric dam may be built that will flood the valley over the opposition of environmental groups and business owners who sued to stop the dam construction.
Privy Council Rules Flawed Belize Dam Can Be Built
LONDON, UK, January 30, 2004 (ENS) - A high court in London Thursday decided the fate of a rainforest valley in the Central American nation of Belize inhabited by endangered jaguars, tapirs and scarlet macaws. Ruling in the first environmental case it has ever considered, the Privy Council decided that a hydroelectric dam may be built that will flood the valley over the opposition of environmental groups and business owners who sued to stop the dam construction.
In a split 3-2 decision Thursday, the Privy Council ruled that construction of the controversial Chalillo dam can proceed. The Belizean government's approval of the 49.5 meter (160 foot) high dam, to be built by the Canadian company Fortis, Inc. of Newfoundland, may have been flawed but it was not illegal, the majority ruled.
The ruling acknowledges that the Chalillo dam proposal has aroused strong opposition from environmentalists, not only in Belize but in Fortis Inc.'s home country of Canada, in the United States and indeed throughout the world.
The dam on the Macal River at Chalillo will hold back the waters of the Macal and its tributary the Raspaculo to create a lake which will extend about 20 kilometers (12 miles) up the Macal and 10 km up the Raspaculo. It will flood nearly 10 square kilometers (2,471 acres) of land on the border between the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and the Chiquibul National Park.
These are areas which Belize has designated for preservation as national environmental resources because of the importance of the plants and animals which are found there.
The area has the highest density of the surviving big cats - jaguar, puma and ocelot - in Central America, the court wrote. "Morelet's crocodile, a rare species, lives in the rivers. Shy and secretive tapirs lumber through the woods. Gorgeous scarlet macaws, of which only about 1,000 still exist anywhere in the world, nest in the trees by the river banks."
Acknowledging that the 10 square kilometers (2,471 acres) to be flooded is important because its unique vegetation "makes it one of the most biologically rich and diverse regions remaining in Central America," the majority still decided to let the dam proceed based on respect for the sovereignty of Belize.
"Despite these potential environmental losses," the three judge majority wrote, "the government of Belize has decided to give its approval to the construction of the dam. It considers that the losses are outweighed by the advantages to the community in being able to generate more of its own electricity."
"Belize is a sovereign state, having gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1981," the judges wrote. This is "a matter of national policy which a democratically elected government can decide."
Ruling for the majority, judges Lord Hoffman, Lord Rodger and Sir Andrew Leggatt wrote, "No one suggests that the government of Belize did not have power to authorise the building of the dam. Still less is the court being asked to decide whether it made the right decision. The dispute is entirely over the procedure by which the decision was made. The allegation is that the department of the Belize government which approved the construction of the dam did not comply with the procedures required by law to be observed before such approval could be given."
A sharply worded minority dissent found that the dam approval process violated Belizean law and should be overturned.
The dissent, written by Lord Walker and joined by Lord Steyn, criticized Fortis and the Belizean government for failing to disclose to three courts critical information about the project, and said that the Belizean government official in charge of the project's environmental review was not credible.
The dissent also called attention to the flaws in the government's assessment of the dam site's geology, which could cause the dam to leak or become unstable.
"Today's decision confirms that Fortis and the government have not been truthful to the Belizean public or to the courts," said Tony Garel, chairman of the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs, which brought the case to the Privy Council. "The fundamental errors about the geology of the dam site could mean the difference between life and death for the 12,000 people living downstream from the site."
The environmental assessment repeatedly stated that the dam would be built on solid granite. Expert geological assessments, which Fortis and the government withheld from the courts for nearly two years, showed that there is no granite at the site, which is composed of more fragile sandstone and shale.
"The majority's opinion is disappointing, but the minority dissent made clear that approval of the Chalillo dam was based on the unlawful, erroneous and deceitful actions of its proponents," said Jacob Scherr of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has been active in the international effort to stop the dam. "The words of the dissent will haunt and ultimately doom this economically and environmentally unsound project."
The two dissenting judges differed "respectfully but profoundly" from the majority. They found that during the Belizean government's review of the dam application, the Belize's chief environmental officer's testimony was so contradictory that he was not credible.
They found that Fortis' subsidiary, BECOL, and the Belizean government withheld important information from three courts - the Supreme Court of Belize, the Court of Appeals, and the Privy Council itself.
The dissent said that Fortis' information about the geology at the site was "seriously wrong."
The Canadian engineering company Agra CI carried out a geological survey in 1999 that found that the bedrock at the dam site was granite. Agra then merged with another Canadian company Amec E & C Services Ltd. (AMEC), which produced the environmental impact assessment for the dam project.
The Agra survey included in the environmental impact assessment, "unequivocally stated that the bedrock of the dam site was granite, and made clear that this was significant," the dissenting judges wrote.
The Belize Alliance of Conservation Nongovernmental Organizations, which brought the appeal before the Privy Council then asked Brian Holland FGS, an American geologist resident in Belize, to review the geological data in the environmental impact assessment as he had experience in the area.
On January 30, 2002, Holland reported, "The AMEC geology report and feasibility report are so filled with fundamental errors and flaws so as to render them useless as a basis for engineers to use in the design and the construction of the proposed dam. The mistakes made in the mapping of the Chalillo site and in the geological report would get a failing mark in an introductory geology class."
Fortis' environmental assessment, paid for by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), "was so flawed by important errors about the geology of the site" as to be unacceptable," wrote the dissent.
Fortis at first denied that its geological assessment was wrong, and later said it did not make any difference. "The position to which it has moved is that the difference between granite and sandstone is an issue of 'nomenclature' which geologists may debate but that either would provide a satisfactory foundation for building a dam," the dissenting judges wrote.
But they disagreed, saying, "A dam which is liable to leak, and still more a dam which is liable to prove unstable, may have a more serious environmental impact (and fewer if any countervailing advantages) than a secure dam."
About 200 of the world's few remaining scarlet macaws live in the Chalillo area. (Photo courtesy UC Davis Parrot Outreach Club)
As a result, the dissent concluded that construction should be stopped until the information about the site's geology is made public.
"The people of Belize are entitled to be properly informed about any proposals for alterations in the dam design before the project is approved and before work continues with its construction," Lord Walker concluded.
"The Canadian government should be embarrassed by the court's findings," said attorney Elizabeth May, president of the Sierra Club of Canada and a longtime opponent of the dam project. "This report did not meet the standards acceptable in Belize, or the standards that Canadian taxpayers would expect."
Last June a Chinese state company that has the contract to build the dam began clearing the dam site. Since then it has encountered difficulties and delays. It found no granite, which it needs not only for a foundation, but as an essential ingredient for the thousands of tons of concrete that it will need to build the dam itself.
Local eyewitness reports also indicate that government authorities have not moved to stop imported Chinese workers from illegally hunting jaguars, tapirs and other wildlife, the NRDC says.
"We call on Fortis and the Belizean government to make public the current situation at the site, any plans for changing the dam design, and an accounting of all additional costs," said Scherr. "We strongly urge them to reconsider going forward with this flawed project."
But Belize will soon be short of power unless the dam goes ahead. The sole supplier of electricity in Belize is Belize Electricity Limited, a subsidiary of Fortis. Until about 10 years ago, it generated about half the electricity used in Belize in diesel power stations, using imported oil.
The rest was supplied by the Mexican state owned Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) under a long term agreement.
But Belize can call on a limited to 25 megawatts of CFE power, the price is linked to world oil prices, and during peak periods is five times higher than the ordinary rate. The result is that Belizean residents pay about twice as much for their home electricity as their neighbors in Guatemala and Mexico.
The CFE agreement expires in 2008 and Mexico's own increasing requirements make it uncertain whether it will be renewed.
Stanley Marshall, president and CEO of Fortis Inc. said the company is "very pleased" with the Privy Council's decision.
Stanley Marshall is president and CEO of Fortis Inc. of Newfoundland, Canada. (Photo courtesy Fortis Inc.)
"Since our initial investment in Belize in 1999, we have worked closely with the government of Belize to develop their country's energy resources while complying fully with Belize's stringent environmental regulations," said Marshall.
"All regulatory approvals were in place when construction of this major project commenced, which is of real importance to the economy of Belize," he said. "The environmental assessment completed for the Chalillo Project was the most rigorous environmental assessment undertaken in the history of Belize, a country with a world-class reputation for preserving its natural environment."
"Fortis remains committed to providing our customers in Belize with safe, reliable electricity service," Marshall said.
"New generation sources are critical to meet the growing energy demand of the country of Belize," he said. "More stable electricity costs can only be realized by reducing exposure to volatile, international oil prices. The Chalillo Project is the lowest cost energy supply source available to Belize."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.
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