The Chalillo Dam on the Macal River was completed in 2005 after a long legal battle and an international campaign opposing it. The area that the dam flooded included 2400 square miles of pristine rainforest, including undocumented Mayan ruins and the only known breeding grounds of the Scarlet Macaw. Just as importantly, the laws of Belize were also flouted and the citizens of Belize are paying higher electricity rates than any of their Central American neighbors. To understand how this happened you need some background.

Chalillo DamThe Chalillo Dam on the Macal River, Belize

One of the major players is Fortis International, a Canadian privately owned gas and electricity utility. Fortis owns 68% of the only electricity distribution company in Belize, Belize Electricity Limited (BEL). As of 2004, Fortis also fully owns the Belize Electric Company Limited (BECOL), the company responsible for hydroelectric power generation for the Belize national power supply network. Through BEL and BECOL, the Fortis monopoly and the government of Belize engineered a deal to construct the Chalillo Dam.

The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) subsequently improperly approved a power purchase agreement for the dam without public notice, hearings or analysis of its impact on the market and ratepayers, as required by Belize's electricity law. The PUC made the agreement accessible to the public only after rubber-stamping its approval. To read that agreement, click here.

Two lawsuits were filed by BACONGO (the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs) challenging these actions. In one BACONGO argued that the environmental clearance given for the Chalillo Dam was improper, that it was based on an inaccurate Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and that there was the failure to hold a public hearing on the project prior to the granting of clearance.  In the other case, BACONGO argued that the actions of the PUC, cited above, were illegal.

The EIA was prepared for Fortis by AMEC, a Montreal-based engineering company with no environmental expertise in Belize. AMEC did hire biologists with London's Natural History Museum. Chris Minty, the lead biologist, refused to sign a confidentiality agreement. He confirmed what local environmentalists had been reporting: the area was a critical breeding ground for tapirs, jaguars, crocodiles, and for dozens of bird species migrating between North American and South America. Minty concluded that the effects of the Challilo dam on these species would be “major, long-term, and regional in extent,” and he recommended the “No-Build” option, but his recommendations were hidden in the appendices and contradicted in the lengthy text.

Similarly, AMEC ignored the advice of geologists. According to geologist Brian Holland, technical director and chief geologist for Belize Minerals Limited, the geological assessment prepared by AMEC was wrong. Holland described AMEC's claim that the dam site is granite as an “inconceivable” mistake. Geologist and mining companies have mapped the area since the 1950s and all maps indicate sandstones, shales, and limestone. In addition the report failed to include geological faults and fractures in the project area that threaten the integrity of the dam. It also failed to include the limestone caverns in the area to be flooded that could drain water out of the dam's reservoir and render it useless.

The Privy Court of London, Belize's highest Court of Appeal, heard the case which challenged the approval of the flawed EIA. The judges criticized Fortis and the Belizean authorities for withholding pertinent information about Chalillo from the public and for approving the project based on a feasibility study that contained serious errors. On the legality of the approval process, however, the judges ruled the country's environmental law had not been broken: an EIA was submitted and public hearings held, however flawed. The appeal was rejected by the Privy Council, 3-2.

While the decision of the Privy Council was a setback, the legal battle continued even after the dam was built. BELPO took the Department of Environment to court in 2007 for its failure to ensure that Fortis implement the provisions of the Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP) as the law requires. In July, 2008, the court ruled in favor of BELPO, ordering the government to establish an emergency warning system to protect downstream residents in the event of a dam break, monitor water quality in the Macal River, test fish for levels of mercury, inform the public of the dangers of consuming high levels of mercury, and properly set up a Public Participation Committee for a two-way flow of information on the impacts of the dam and peoples' concerns.   For the claim, please see Belize Institute for Environmental Law (BELPO) v. Department of Environment (DOE) (Claim No.  302 OF 2007)

BELPO continues to monitor the Chalillo Dam and noted to Amandala News in August, 2009, that the waters of the Macal running between the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena were a dirty, milky brown.  Probe International explains the dangers of the “colloidal suspension” to humans, livestock, the diverse wildlife in and around the river, and the ocean reefs where the Macal empties into the sea. 

The Department of the Environment (DOE) of Belize responded to the public regarding heavy metals in the Macal by mid-October, 2009, but it has not responded to the concerns about waterborne microbes, the abrasive effects of the suspension on fish and other organisms, the anticipated death of river plants and the subsequent decrease in oxygen in the river, which then will kill fish and other biota.  Intended to provide “clean” hydroelectric energy for Belize, the Chalillo Dam, instead, continues to threaten the ecological integrity of the river. 

For a comprehensive summary of Fortis, the detailed review of the legal case against the Chalillo Dam, the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations of Belize, the flawed EIA, and the legal actions of BACONGO regarding the EIA please see the following:

1995
Belize -- Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations (1995) -- Statutory Instrument No.  107 of 1995

2001
Belize -- EIA for proposed Chalillo Dam in Belize -- Macal River Upstream Storage Facility EIA (August 2001)

2002
Belize -- BACONGO v.  Department of the Environment and Belize Electric Company Limited (Application for Judicial Review)

2003
Belize -- BACONGO v.  Department of the Environment and Belize Electricity Company Limited, Privy Council Appeal No.  47 of 2003 (Chalillo Dam, costs decision)

Belize -- BACONGO v.  Department of the Environment and Belize Electricity Company Limited, Privy Council Appeal No.  47 of 2003 (13 August 2003) (Chalillo Dam preliminary injunction denial)

Other resources:

“Fortis in Belize - Comprehensive Summary and Analysis” by Grainne Ryder (Many thanks to Grainne Ryder for her excellent article which informs our summary.)

For a detailed review of the legal case against the Chalillo dam, see “A Solid Foundation: Belize's Chalillo Dam and Environmental Decisionmaking,” by Ari Hershowitz, published in the University of California's Ecology Law Quarterly, Volume 35, Number 1, 2008, p.  73. Also available online at http://www.boalt.org/elq/documents/elq35-1-03-hershowitz-2008-0320.pdf