Fortis, activists clash over Belize dam

James McLeod jmcleod@thetelegram.com
Published on December 12, 2009
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.

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