Victory in Belize: Sibun River saved from hazardous waste landfill

Belizean government abandons Mile 27 site

(April 10, 2001) - NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and community and environmental groups in Belize achieved victory last week in a fourteen month campaign to halt a proposed hazardous waste and garbage landfill near the Sibun River in Belize. On April 3, the Cabinet of the Government of Belize abandoned the proposed site, called Mile 27, and decided it would relocate it to a more environmentally sound location at Mile 24.

The Mile 27 site was chosen as the result of an environmental impact assessment conducted by a Canadian consulting firm funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). At the request of Belizean groups, NRDC undertook an extensive technical evaluation of the proposed landfill site, finding that it posed a hazard for local communities and the nearby zoo and Tropical Education Center. Under pressure, the IDB and the Government of Belize agreed to look at an alternative site proposed by NRDC at Mile 24. A second IDB-funded study recently found the two sites to be equal on economic terms; and this study provided the basis for the Cabinet's decision last week to move the landfill to Mile 24.

"This is great news for the communities that rely on the Sibun River for drinking, bathing and fishing" said NRDC's Senior Scientist Dr. Allen Hershkowitz who led NRDC's technical team responding to the call for help from local Belizean organizations to review the original landfill design and siting plan. "I'm happy for the people, flora and fauna of Belize who rely on the Sibun River and, especially, for the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, two essential Central American conservation organizations whose very existence was threatened by this misguided project."

The proposed site would have created a risk of toxic chemicals flowing into the Sibun River, which is used for drinking, bathing and subsistence fishing by a score of villages. The Sibun River is also a fresh water source for Belize's endangered population of manatees and rare Central American crocodiles. NRDC and local groups were also concerned about the landfill's impact on the drinking water supplies for both the Belize Zoo -- visited by 40,000 people per year -- and its Tropical Education Center, which are less than two km from the proposed landfill site. Downwind of the landfill site, the Zoo and the TEC would have been endangered by noxious gases and foul smells from the landfill.

Jacob Scherr, Director of NRDC's International Program, who is leading NRDC advocacy efforts in Belize, said, "I am pleased that Inter-American Development Bank was so sensitive to the well-being of communities in Belize. With so much attention to the negative impacts of the various multilateral banks in the developing world, it is refreshing to see the IDB take such proactive and positive steps to protect the environment. This is a hopeful and welcome sign."

Sharon Matola, the founder of the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, said:
"No words exist to describe the joy and relief I feel about the Belize Government's April 3rd decision to disqualify Mile 27 as a major landfill site. It is an incredible victory for the environmental movement in Belize. This would not have happened had we not had the steadfast assistance from NRDC during the past year-plus. The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center and the important conservation work which these institutions continues to put forward, can now continue minus the threat of such an ill-planned project. I thank NRDC for its expertise, advice, understanding, and friendship during this difficult battle."

NRDC is continuing to work with the Belize Zoo and other environmentalists in Belize to halt the construction of the Chalillo dam, which would destroy the upper Macal River valley. NRDC has identified this area as one of 12 "BioGems" in North and Central America that are threatened by development or degradation.