Hydro-electricity project threatens Belize wildlife

A unique and remote river valley, teaming with rare wildlife, in the Central Mayan mountains in Belize is to be flooded in order to create an unnecessary hydro-electricity generating plant, say conservationists.

Belize Electricity Limited (BEL), owned by the Canadian corporation, Fortis Inc., and the Belize Government, plans to build the Chalillo dam, whose associated reservoir would flood over 1000 hectares of forest along the Macal River. This area, say scientists, is the only known breeding ground for a sub-species of scarlet macaw, and it is also home to rare species such as the Central Americal river otter, Morelet’s crocodile, the Central American spider monkey, the tapir and the jaguar.

A spokesman for the Belize Zoo was quoted as saying: “This herbaceous vegetation, thick and lush along the sun-baked riversides, lacks the toxic alkaloids found in shaded, forest-dwelling plants. As a result, these now undisturbed river valleys provide a tropical all-you-can-eat situation for the wildlife found there.”

“Other regions of the country simply do not have this type of flora,” said Ryder.

“As with many utilities around the world, BEL sees hydro development as a non-polluting source of electricity – and one that, in theory at least, is relatively low-cost given that it is under no obligation to internationalise the dam’s environmental, economic, and public health costs and liabilities,” Grainne Ryder, Policy Director at Probe International, a Toronto-based campaign group, told edie. “Government leaders typically like hydro dams because they create construction jobs and make for great political gains locally.”

The government’s problem is that an existing dam on the Macal River has insufficient water during the dry season to meet the country’s electricity needs, with the shortfall currently being made up by expensive diesel generators. It is hoped that the situation would be solved by the Chalillo dam.

Analysis of the project by the Conservation Strategy Fund (CSF), a US-based NGO working with conservation, academic and development institutions, has found that the project is neither economically viable, nor has BEL produced an adequate environmental impact assessment. “We question the adequacy of an assessment of overall wildlife impacts that limits its scope to three species and does not include any field investigation,” said CSF’s report on the Chalillo Dam proposal. BEL’s feasability study rests on very uncertain hydrological information, says CSF, and neither could the dam initially be credited with substantially avoiding diesel use.

The only alternative to the scheme that has been considered is a dam on another part of the river, but, says CSF, as the purpose of the Chalillo project is not to dam the Macal River, but to produce electricity, other methods electricity production should be considered. The two most significant alternatives, says CSF, is imported Mexican electricity, and the burning of biomass from sugar cane and citrus farms. Increased environmental impacts from biomass would be minimal, says CSF, as it is already burned, but without producing electricity, though this alternative alone would not be viable.

“Focusing entirely on these as the alternatives is missing the point,” John Reid of CSF told edie. “The supply of imported electricity from Mexico is larger, equally or more secure and cheaper than either hydro or biomass energy. BEL, the Belizean electric utility, has been actively increasing Mexican imports and lowering overall electricity costs in the process.”

“Even [if] Belize builds the Chalillo Dam and develops biomass, it will continue to need to import energy. Conservation Strategy Fund’s analysis found that building Chalillo would absorb just two years of electricity growth in Belize,” said Reid.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie