In Belize, Electricity vs. Tourism ; A $30 Million Dam, Due to Be Completed Next Year, Will Generate Needed Power, but Could Turn off Ecotravelers

By Colin Woodard Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 24, 2004 | Go to article overview

In Belize, Electricity vs. Tourism ; A $30 Million Dam, Due to Be Completed Next Year, Will Generate Needed Power, but Could Turn off Ecotravelers


Colin Woodard Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


By noon on most weekend days, the Macal River is choked with hundreds, even thousands of bathers, waders, and swimmers seeking respite from the sweltering streets of this jungle town high in the interior of Belize. Children play in the shallows, teenagers swim back and forth across the gentle current, while their parents and grandparents cool themselves, conversing with friends and neighbors.

The Macal has always been central to life here, providing drinking water, food, and the primary means of commerce - initially to transport goods, now as a main attraction for the nature- loving tourists on which the local economy depends. But today the river is also at the center of a roiling, four-year battle over the construction of a new dam in one of Central America's last undisturbed forests.

Environmentalists and local residents say the dam will harm the surrounding environment. The Canadian company building it says it will have minimal ecological impact while making the country more self-sufficient. The project highlights the dilemma faced by many poor nations, especially those whose economies rely primarily on ecotourism: how to bring economic development while maintaining the reason that travelers - and their tourist dollars - go there.

Twenty-five miles upstream from here, Fortis Inc. is building the $30 million Chalillo dam, a project proponents say will bring cheaper, cleaner power to a country struggling to keep up with growing electricity demand. While large dams have fallen out of favor in the US and elsewhere, Central America - a region with many rivers and little fossil fuel - is embracing them. Dozens of dams are proposed or under construction in the region, from the uplands of Panama and Costa Rica to the Usumacinta River valley on the Mexico-Guatemala border, where a proposed series of dams threaten to inundate major Mayan ruins.

"This a bad project all the way around," says Grainne Ryder, policy director of Toronto's Probe International, a watchdog group opposed to the Chalillo dam. "Fortis may make a quick profit out of it, but Belizeans will be left with the real costs for generations."

Not so, says Fortis. "It is our opinion that the Chalillo project and hydroelectric production is the most cost-efficient and environmentally responsible energy supply option for Belize," counters spokeswoman Donna Hynes, noting that Belizean electricity demand has been growing at 8 to 10 percent a year. "Belize already experiences brownouts in their supplies [imported] from Mexico."

Belize, a former British colony of 256,000 people, is one of the premier destinations for nature tourism in the Western Hemisphere. Each year, 180,000 travelers visit the country to explore its coral reefs and Mayan temples, or to hike and canoe through backcountry wilderness. Their spending accounts for about a fifth of Belize's $1.3 billion economy and directly employs a quarter of its workforce.

Residents of San Ignacio and the surrounding Cayo district say most people here are against the dam, and T-shirts and banners bearing such slogans as "The Macal is ours" are hot items. The San Ignacio town council opposes the project, and the vice mayor testified against it during an unsuccessful attempt to block construction. …

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