Chalillo Dam Project Cleared by Belize Government
BELIZE CITY, Belize, November 15, 2001 (ENS) - The government of Belize has decided to approve construction of a massive hydroelectric dam in a jungle valley, destroying some of the richest rainforest habitat in the country. The Chalillo Dam is expected to flood 1,100 hectares (2,718 acres) of pristine forest, engulfing the valleys of the Macal and Raspaculo rivers.
"The NEAC is satisfied that the benefits of the MRUSF project outweighs the environmental costs and that most of the adverse effects can be mitigated and/or managed through the implementation of a sound environmental compliance plan," the committee said in a press release.
The government clearance is conditional upon the development of an Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP), which will incorporate the mitigation measures identified in the environmental impact assessment, along with others recommended during the evaluation process. The development of the ECP has already begun, the committee said, and will specify the detailed mitigation measures, time frame and budget associated with their implementation.
Critics of the dam project say it will destroy river valley ecosystems that are the country's most productive "wildlife factory," said biologist Sharon Matola, director of the Belize Zoo.
The remote jungle valleys that the project will flood are nestled between the Central Maya mountains near the Guatemalan border. The region provides one of the last large havens for the nation's wealth of biodiversity.
Bruce Miller, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, called the region the most singularly unique for wildlife in Belize.
The area is home to endangered Central American tapirs, southern river otters, and Morelets crocodiles. Many North American migratory birds overwinter here.
"We are gambling with our natural resources, treasures that are not duplicated anywhere else in the region," said Matola, a vocal opponent of the project.
A 1992 Environmental Impact Assessment produced by Agra CI Power Ltd., estimated that "over 90 percent of riparian (riverine) habitat would be destroyed," if the dam were built. The report, by a subsidiary of Agra, Inc., a Canadian based international engineering, construction and technology company, predicted that serious environmental damage would occur downriver from the proposed dam site, impacting the lives of people who depend on the river for sustenance.
The Agra assessment found that the dam could kill fish by generating sulfide gases as vegetation rotted in the reservoir, and by changing seasonal river flows.
Tourism is currently the largest contributor to the country's Gross National Product.
"It took millions of years of evolution for this habitat to reach its current unique state. It is unacceptable to trade that for a dam, which under the best of circumstances, would provide electricity for perhaps 50 years. This is environmental crime of the highest degree," warned Matola.