Environmental And Business Groups Sue to Stop Canadian Firm's Dam In Belize Rainforest

WASHINGTON (February 14, 2002) - Belizean environmental and business groups filed a lawsuit last week to block a controversial Canadian-backed dam in an important rainforest wilderness. The lawsuit challenges the Belizean government's conditional go-ahead for the "Chalillo" dam project without public hearings or consideration of hundreds of pages of comments from leading scientists, as required by Belizean law.

The lawsuit also charges the dam's proponents, Newfoundland-based Fortis Inc., and its partner, the Belize government, with breaking the country's environmental law by allowing preparation work to begin at the dam site before the project's environmental review is completed. Construction began on the access road to the dam site this month, despite official statements from Fortis and the Belize government that no work has started.

Opponents of the project say the 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.

The project review was rushed through a government technical committee in two days, following demonstrations against the dam in Belize's capital city of Belmopan. The government committee announced its conditional approval despite major gaps and errors in the 1,500-page environmental assessment that it was required to review as part of the decision. The committee ignored comments provided by numerous experts showing that the assessment -- paid for by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) -- underestimates environmental harm and provides incorrect information about the bedrock that the dam would be built upon. Geologists say that this misinformation could lead to failure of the dam, and put downstream communities at risk.

"The dam will put our children and our environment at risk," said Jamillah Vasquez, executive director of the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs. "If Fortis and the government follow the law, we are convinced that this dam will not be built. We are going to take this lawsuit as far as it takes to get justice."

The lawsuit -- the first of its kind in Belize -- was brought by Belizean environmental and tourism groups (the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs, Belize Eco-tourism Association), and is the most recent action in a three-year campaign to stop the dam.

American actor Harrison Ford, artist Robert Bateman and Robert Kennedy Jr., an attorney with the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), have publicly criticized the project. NRDC first brought this issue to international attention two years ago as one of its BioGems campaigns. NRDC's list of BioGems highlights a select group of natural areas that are considered important centers of biological diversity that are under attack from industrial exploitation.

"In nearly two decades as an environmental lawyer, this is one of the worst cases I've seen of profiteering at the expense of people and the environment," said Kennedy, who joined Belizeans in Toronto and Belize City last year to denounce the project. "Fortis and its partners are breaking the law in Belize in a way they could never do in the United States or Canada."

Fortis owns Belize's national electric utility and wants to build the Chalillo dam to store water for a smaller hydro dam that it owns downstream.

Critics point out that construction of the first dam is largely to blame for the high electricity rates Belizeans already pay to Fortis -- three times the average rate in Canada -- and that Fortis is denying Belizeans cheaper, better generating options that would leave the Macal River Valley intact.

Thousands of people from around the world have sent letters to Fortis, urging the company to abandon the dam project, and the campaign has gained worldwide attention through the Internet. Opponents of the project have put together a website, www.stopfortis.org, and people from as far away as New Zealand and Uruguay have signed the campaign's online petition.

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.

Related NRDC Pages
BioGems: Macal River Valley