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 dam will flood one of the only known nesting areas for the Belize scarlet macaw (Two photos courtesy Belize Zoo)
The Belize National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC) announced Tuesday that "subsequent to several sessions to diligently review the Environmental Impact Assessment" on the proposed Macal River Upstream Storage Facility (MRUSF), the government has granted environmental clearance for the project.

"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.


Belize's jaguars need vast areas of uninterrupted forest to survive
Public hearings are being planned to present the information that the NEAC used in its decision making, including the conditions upon which clearance is being granted.

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.


Tapir in the Belize rainforest (Two photos courtesy Belize Explorer)
It is one of the only known nesting sites for a rare sub-species of scarlet macaw, whose numbers have dwindled below 200 in Belize. Over most of its range, the scarlet macaw is endangered, and many have been captured for the pet trade.

"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.


Tourists on the Macal River
The assessment also raised the issue of possible impact on the marine environment. The Macal River feeds the Belize River, which empties into the Caribbean Sea. Off shore stands the largest barrier reef in the Western hemisphere, a popular destination for tourists from around the globe.

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.