Fortis, activists clash over Belize dam

James
James McLeod
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The situation on the Macal River in Belize is murky.

Downstream from the Chalillo dam owned by Belize Electric, which is in turn owned by St. John's-based Fortis Inc., the river is filled with silt, turning it the colour of chocolate milk.

Local and international activists have protested the dam for years - since before it was built - and they are now saying that the silt is a glaring symptom of what they've warned all along.

Fortis Chalillo dam in Belize. Submitted photo

The situation on the Macal River in Belize is murky.

Downstream from the Chalillo dam owned by Belize Electric, which is in turn owned by St. John's-based Fortis Inc., the river is filled with silt, turning it the colour of chocolate milk.

Local and international activists have protested the dam for years - since before it was built - and they are now saying that the silt is a glaring symptom of what they've warned all along.

"Our approach, always, to environmental issues and to electricity issues, is that people should pay the full cost of power that they're purchasing, and that includes environmental costs and risks," said Patricia Adams, executive director of Probe International.

"That didn't happen in Belize."

Belize activists Candy and George Gonzolez have taken their case to the Supreme Court of Belize.

They say Fortis has been shirking its environmental commitments.

They say the silt is killing plants in the river which, in turn, will kill the fish.

John Evans, chief engineer for Fortis paints a drastically different picture.

"Obviously (the silt) is a concern, but it's something that has nothing to do with the dam," he said, adding that only a tiny portion of the river's silt comes from above the dam.

Evans said that the company built the dam to rigorous environmental and safety standards.

"We've done everything the department of environment has asked for and more," Evans said. "We would develop the project in Belize to meet a standard that we would use in Canada."

Evans painted the opposition to the Chalillo dam as being mostly driven by external activists - Probe International - and a handful of locals.

Newfoundland performer and activist Greg Malone said flatly that he didn't believe Fortis.

"There's not a lot of protest in Belize because people are afraid," Malone said. "It's very hard to get people to organize and protest because they will be punished for it and there will be retribution from the gringos with the money."

It's undeniable that the dam has had major impacts on the Macal river, activisits say. Before it was built, the river was essentially dry for several months a year, and flooded during the rainy season.

Now with the aid of the dam and reservoir, it's steadier year-round.

"Yes, there's less flow in the flood season and more flow in the really dry seasons, but I wouldn't suggest to you that drastically changes the ecosystem," Evans said. "Remember, this river is used for water supplies, so the town councils along the river think its great because now they can get water all year long."

Evans also said that the fact the reservoir catches rainwater as well as riverwater, could account for the water above the dam looking a different colour than the water below.

jmcleod@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Belize Electric, Supreme Court

Geographic location: Belize, Macal River, St. John's Canada Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • Andy
    July 02, 2010 - 13:34

    At least they aren't hunting seals.

  • Johathan
    July 02, 2010 - 13:32

    Yet another reason to rip the Canadian flag off my backpack. Fortis is only one of the many Canadian companies exploiting these lands and their people while our governments silently back their authoritarian regimes.

  • Lindsay
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    Canadians are causing more problems in Belize than just the dam. Unsustainable coastal development being one of the primary ones.

    Check out Canyon Acquisitions/Canyon Canada, The Placencia Hotel and Residences, Copal Beach, Placencia Estates, Rendezvous Caye, The Placencia Marina and Palmetto Bay for starters.

  • clever
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    @Lloyd:
    I'm sure that Evans, P.Eng is aware that river water comes from rain, so he's probably trying to say that rain falling directly into the reservior itself has an effect on its colour. Whether THAT's true is a different story.

    I think the point YOU'RE trying to make is: if the dam isn't causing the silting, what is? If Fortis has an answer to the question they should be clear on this.

    @Flippy:
    (1) would v did : that actually sounds more like loose language than anything as calculated as you suggest.
    (2) I think most would agree that the literal meaning of the words rape and pillage may a little harsh for a description of a hyrdo dam - unless you're suggesting that Fortis employees are actually raping people. Also, instant wealth may not be completely accurate given that the construction time for a dam could be anywhere from a few years to a decade or more.

    @Jonathan A:
    Worst comment offended by far: implying that Belize's government is illegitimate is actually spreading misinformation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Belize

  • Flippy
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    'We would develop the project in Belize to meet a standard that we would use in Canada' - John Evans, chief engineer for Fortis.

    Notice he said WOULD not DID. Future not past tense. Yeah I caught that, I wasn't fooled. So, technically he can't be quoted for stating he met Canadian standards. This is called a lie by omission. Pure deception by words.

    Raping and pillaging has always been the fastest means to instant wealth.

  • Taxpayer ll
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    More enviromentalists. It's funny how they don't talk about the fact that before Fortis came on the scene , they had little to no electricity, the country couldn't properly deve;op it's tourist industry, there was little opportunity for the poor, and few jobs. Now things are beginnig to change there, the economy is starting to prosper, and the trickle down affect is taking place. This is in addition to the control of flood waters that have ravaged this region in the past. The dam, and the involvement of a company like Fortis is a very positive thing for this country. Fortis helps feed more families in Belize in a day than Beni the clown would do in his lifetime. Fortis is a mulitnational sucess story, a company that all NLers should be proud of, and they still have their head offices in St. John's. Oh' and by the way NL power is seventh on the list of revenue generators for Fortis.

  • Lloyd
    July 02, 2010 - 13:10

    Evans also said that the fact the reservoir catches rainwater as well as riverwater,...
    I wonder where does Evans think riverwater comes from if it isn't rain?
    I wonder what theProvinces view is on this country having it's electricity production owned by foreigners?

    Was there silting present, in the same amounts, before the dam as there is now?
    Wasn't there an issue regarding soft rock (limestone?) or something like that as well?

  • Eugene
    July 02, 2010 - 13:09

    I've learned that we can not always judge other places on our experience living on the Canadian Shield . I lived in Africa 4 years and the Middle East 5 years. Many Canadian rivers run over rocks and carry no silt. However in West Africa all rivers are chocolate brown during rainy season, due to silt. You can not see through even one cm of water.

    One should ask how much silt was in the river before the dam was built then how much is there after the dam was built. In the controlled water flow, the quantity of silt may well be less than that experienced during the rainy season.

    I suspect that this may be a case of people, who love to criticise, jumping on the band wager because it is what they enjoy doing.

  • Andy
    July 01, 2010 - 20:23

    At least they aren't hunting seals.

  • Johathan
    July 01, 2010 - 20:21

    Yet another reason to rip the Canadian flag off my backpack. Fortis is only one of the many Canadian companies exploiting these lands and their people while our governments silently back their authoritarian regimes.

  • Lindsay
    July 01, 2010 - 20:11

    Canadians are causing more problems in Belize than just the dam. Unsustainable coastal development being one of the primary ones.

    Check out Canyon Acquisitions/Canyon Canada, The Placencia Hotel and Residences, Copal Beach, Placencia Estates, Rendezvous Caye, The Placencia Marina and Palmetto Bay for starters.

  • clever
    July 01, 2010 - 20:09

    @Lloyd:
    I'm sure that Evans, P.Eng is aware that river water comes from rain, so he's probably trying to say that rain falling directly into the reservior itself has an effect on its colour. Whether THAT's true is a different story.

    I think the point YOU'RE trying to make is: if the dam isn't causing the silting, what is? If Fortis has an answer to the question they should be clear on this.

    @Flippy:
    (1) would v did : that actually sounds more like loose language than anything as calculated as you suggest.
    (2) I think most would agree that the literal meaning of the words rape and pillage may a little harsh for a description of a hyrdo dam - unless you're suggesting that Fortis employees are actually raping people. Also, instant wealth may not be completely accurate given that the construction time for a dam could be anywhere from a few years to a decade or more.

    @Jonathan A:
    Worst comment offended by far: implying that Belize's government is illegitimate is actually spreading misinformation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Belize

  • Flippy
    July 01, 2010 - 20:07

    'We would develop the project in Belize to meet a standard that we would use in Canada' - John Evans, chief engineer for Fortis.

    Notice he said WOULD not DID. Future not past tense. Yeah I caught that, I wasn't fooled. So, technically he can't be quoted for stating he met Canadian standards. This is called a lie by omission. Pure deception by words.

    Raping and pillaging has always been the fastest means to instant wealth.

  • Taxpayer ll
    July 01, 2010 - 19:57

    More enviromentalists. It's funny how they don't talk about the fact that before Fortis came on the scene , they had little to no electricity, the country couldn't properly deve;op it's tourist industry, there was little opportunity for the poor, and few jobs. Now things are beginnig to change there, the economy is starting to prosper, and the trickle down affect is taking place. This is in addition to the control of flood waters that have ravaged this region in the past. The dam, and the involvement of a company like Fortis is a very positive thing for this country. Fortis helps feed more families in Belize in a day than Beni the clown would do in his lifetime. Fortis is a mulitnational sucess story, a company that all NLers should be proud of, and they still have their head offices in St. John's. Oh' and by the way NL power is seventh on the list of revenue generators for Fortis.

  • Lloyd
    July 01, 2010 - 19:47

    Evans also said that the fact the reservoir catches rainwater as well as riverwater,...
    I wonder where does Evans think riverwater comes from if it isn't rain?
    I wonder what theProvinces view is on this country having it's electricity production owned by foreigners?

    Was there silting present, in the same amounts, before the dam as there is now?
    Wasn't there an issue regarding soft rock (limestone?) or something like that as well?

  • Eugene
    July 01, 2010 - 19:44

    I've learned that we can not always judge other places on our experience living on the Canadian Shield . I lived in Africa 4 years and the Middle East 5 years. Many Canadian rivers run over rocks and carry no silt. However in West Africa all rivers are chocolate brown during rainy season, due to silt. You can not see through even one cm of water.

    One should ask how much silt was in the river before the dam was built then how much is there after the dam was built. In the controlled water flow, the quantity of silt may well be less than that experienced during the rainy season.

    I suspect that this may be a case of people, who love to criticise, jumping on the band wager because it is what they enjoy doing.