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Belize Supreme Court Orders Public Hearings on Canadian-Backed Dam
Environmentalists Praise Ruling; Say Project Threatens Rainforest
WASHINGTON (December 20, 2002) -- Yesterday's ruling by Belize's Supreme Court ordering public hearings for a proposed hydroelectric dam was hailed by an environmental coalition as "a major step forward for democracy."
The coalition, the Belize Alliance of Conservation Non-Governmental Organizations (BACONGO), had filed a lawsuit in February, charging that the Belize government's approval of the dam was illegal. Fortis Inc., a Newfoundland, Canada-based multinational that controls Belize's electric utility, wants to build the dam in the Macal River Valley.
"Fortis is not above the law," said Sharon Matola, director of the Belize Zoo and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "This decision is a major step forward in our quest for open and fair decisionmaking on a project that has critical implications for our environment and our people."
BACONGO maintains that the proposed Chalillo dam would flood one of the last intact rainforests in Central America, destroying habitat for rare and endangered species, including the jaguar, scarlet macaw, and Belize's national animal, the tapir.
Chief Justice Abdullah Conteh, in calling for a public hearing, said, "It may well be that a public hearing may or may not affect the final outcome of the decision whether to proceed with the Chalillo dam project. But the public, I think, has a right to be heard ... if the inclusive and democratic process is to mean anything, especially on such a project as the Chalillo dam, with its admittedly wide-ranging ramifications." He strongly advised that Fortis halt the project "until a public hearing is held."
Justice Conteh noted other deficiencies in the environmental review process, but would not overturn the government's approval of the dam. BACONGO will appeal this ruling to the Belize Appeals Court, and, if necessary, to the Privy Council in England.
A government technical committee had announced its conditional approval of the project in November 2001 after a two-day review, despite what environmentalists say were major gaps and errors in a 1,500-page environmental assessment. According to court documents, the committee itself found that the report, paid for by the Canadian International Development Agency, did not contain essential studies on rainfall patterns, wildlife and archaeological sites.
Among the environmental assessment's omissions were:
- Lack of basic hydrology data. Experts require at least 15 years of monitoring of water levels to determine a dam's potential for producing electricity. This study presented only five days of data from the proposed dam site.
- Misidentified geological foundations at the dam site. Geology experts on the government committee pointed out that the studies of the dam site's geology were wrong. These flaws could have resulted in a major disaster if the dam collapsed.
- Incomplete studies of rare or endangered wildlife in the valley. Even experts from London's Natural History Museum, who prepared the wildlife studies for Fortis's environmental assessment, said that the studies were far from complete, and strongly recommended against approving the project.
- Incomplete studies of the threat to archeological sites in the valley. The archeological studies in Fortis's report conceded that far more extensive research would be needed to determine how much damage the dam would do to ancient Mayan sites.
- Failure to state the dam's specifications. Fortis's report did not cite the proposed height of the dam, which is needed to calculate how many acres would be flooded and how much energy could be generated.
"This is the most unscientific, flawed and biased environmental review I've seen in 25 years," said Jacob Scherr, director of the International Program at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), which is a leader of an international coalition to stop the project. "It would have been thrown out immediately in the United States or Canada, and it is very disturbing that a Canadian company is trying to get away with something it would never attempt at home."
For more information about the campaign to stop the dam project, go to www.stopfortis.org.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
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