by Lisa Peryman
More than 10 years after its completion in September 2005, the Americas’ official human rights watchdog has opened a case against the government of Belize to consider the impacts of the country’s long controversial, Canadian-owned Chalillo Dam.
In response to a petition filed as long ago as 2004 by the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO) on behalf of the Maya people and affected communities, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has decided to consider a case against the government of Belize regarding the country’s 7-megawatt Chalillo Dam.
Spanning the Macal River in a location described as “the cradle for biodiversity in Central America” and “one of the most unspoiled places remaining in the hemisphere,” the dam, built by Chinese workers, is owned and operated by Belize Electric Co. Limited (BECOL) – a subsidiary of Fortis Inc., a multinational corporation based in Newfoundland.
Throughout its history, the 50-metre-high dam has been the subject of heated campaigns protesting its impacts, including its threat to endangered species and outrage at Fortis’ deceit regarding, among other things, the bedrock the dam was built on, a seismic fault near the dam site, mercury contamination of river water due to a pre-existing dam – the Mollejon, also owned by Fortis – and failure to properly test for other forms of water contamination, as well as inadequate water flow testing.
Environmental activists won a court case in July 2007 over the Belize government’s failure to enforce a legally required environmental compliance plan. As a result of the win, the government was ordered to monitor water quality of the Macal River, mercury levels in fish and to make public those findings, and establish an emergency warning system to protect downstream residents in the event of a dam break.
However, according to an updated submission by BELPO, requested by IACHR, water quality has degraded, communities that rely on the river’s fish as a primary source of protein still do not know when mercury levels make eating fish unsafe, and a viable emergency warning system remains lacking. [See “Fighting for compliance again: Belize’s Macal River.”]
Environmental lawyer and BELPO president Candy Gonzalez calls the Commission’s decision to admit the petition “a victory for the affected communities” and says it represents recognition of the ongoing harm the hydropower project has caused to the environment, public health and safety, as well as indigenous rights through the loss of over 300 major Mayan archaeological sites destroyed by the creation of the dam’s reservoir.
According to an updated submission by BELPO, requested by IACHR, water quality has degraded, communities that rely on the river’s fish as a primary source of protein still do not know when mercury levels make eating fish unsafe, and a viable emergency warning system remains lacking.
According to BELPO’s updated submission, changes in the Macal River brought about by the construction and operation of the Chalillo Dam have caused loss of livelihood and “a violation of the right to work.” Expert reports, surveys and testimonies from affected communities gathered by BELPO further demonstrate, they say, that the government of Belize has “violated Belizeans’ rights to freedom of investigation, opinion, expression and dissemination as well as the right to a fair trial by regularly withholding information and by failing to implement a court order requiring enforcement of the environmental compliance plan.”
They urge the Commission to carry out an on-site investigation and to visit people impacted by the project.
In 2004, BELPO, Probe International, and an international coalition of environmental groups, took their fight to stop construction of the Chalillo Dam all the way to the British Privy Council, Belize’s highest court of appeal, but lost by a close vote. Probe International also demanded the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) recall a feasibility report for the project conducted by AMEC, a Montreal-based engineering firm, and notify the Belize authorities that its conclusions were invalid.
AMEC, secretly hired by CIDA to justify the project’s construction, failed to record geological faults and fractures in the project area and said bedrock at the dam site was “granite” when it was in fact sandstones interbedded with soft shales which have poor load-bearing capacity. CIDA denied responsibility. U.S. environmental journalist and author Bruce Barcott called the report “a masterpiece of spin and obfuscation.”
Under Fortis’ monopoly, two years after the dam went online, Belizeans were paying twice as much for their electricity than consumers in Guatemala and Mexico. In 2008, Fortis threatened blackouts if rates weren’t increased 25 percent, prompting Belize’s newly elected government to expropriate the company’s assets.
BELPO’s press release follows:
Human rights violations caused by the Chalillo Dam have vailidity
by The Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO)
In an important decision, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has opened a case against the Government of Belize (GOB) regarding the controversial Chalillo Dam built on Belize’s Macal River in 2005.
The decision is in response to a petition from The Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO) filed in 2004 on behalf of the Maya people and those living downstream of the dams who say their rights − including their rights to life, liberty and personal security, religious freedom, benefits of culture, legal rights and the right to work − have been violated.
In their brief to the Commission, BELPO documents show how the riverine populations have been harmed: Water quality has been so degraded that people can no longer bathe in or drink the water; fish have been poisoned by mercury, leaving citizens without their vital source of protein; more than 300 Mayan archaeological sites have been lost under the reservoir, eliminating a large body of knowledge to the Maya; changes to river flows and sediment deposition have destroyed farms and ecotourism businesses along the river, and unemployment has risen.
Also, BELPO says the Government of Belize has, in defiance of its own institutions and legislation, refused to abide by the Orders of the Belize Supreme Court to enforce the Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP) for Chalillo, which is a contract between the Government and the owner of the dam to take measures to mitigate the damages caused by the dam.
The GOB has also failed to inform the people on the quality of the Macal River water, to disclose mercury levels in fish to the public on a timely basis and to provide a viable warning system to alert downstream populations of dam breaks, including the failure to disclose that IACHR’s decision to admit our petition is recognition of the severity of the harms to health, safety and property rights, as well as indigenous rights by the destruction of over 300 major Mayan archaeological sites as well as recognition that the people have a right to know the extent and nature of the harm inflicted upon them by contracts made in their name with corporations.
The opening of the case is, above all, a victory for the affected communities, the Maya people of Belize and local social movements, who have endured for all these years, and remain strong and determined in their search for justice and compensation.
As an organization representing the victims of the Chalillo Dam, BELPO remains committed to exposing the human rights violations directly caused by the dam’s construction.
BELPO acknowledges the integral role played by the Environmental Law Alliance (ELAW), the International Rivers Network – including a valiant fighter for the people, Berta Caceras, assassinated in Honduras earlier this year – and Probe International of Canada in the struggle to get these abuses into this international body.
Lisa Peryman is an editor and writer for Probe International, where this story first appeared. The Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO) can be reached at P.O. Box 105, San Ignacio Town, Cayo District, Belize, +501- 824-2476, or firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.