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Dam Nation: Fortis in Belize, Part 2

in Analysis/Featured/Journalism/Longread by

I went to the Cayo district of central Belize to see what the future might hold for Labrador, when the Muskrat Falls dam comes on stream next year. Fourteen years ago, the Chalillo dam on the Macal River came onstream here. Since then, Belizeans have been mostly unable to get Newfoundland and Labrador’s Fortis Inc.—the dam’s owners and operators—to comply with mercury, flood, and water quality monitoring regulations.

Along the Macal River, food and water security has been degraded by the Chalillo dam. Daily life has been made dependent on the good will of non-compliant corporations and state agencies to monitor life-threatening risks. People now have to rely on bottled water, which they cannot readily afford. They cannot eat or sell the fish from the river. There is fear of flooding and confusion about whether flood alarm systems exist (and how to respond if they do).

In Labrador, the long slow bioaccumulation of methylmercury will soon begin to threaten the well-being and livelihood of communities living on the Churchill River and around Lake Melville. A flooded reservoir will bear down on the silty, sandy clays of the North Spur, whose structural integrity Swedish scientists Stig Bernander and Lennart Elfgren continue to question. Communities in Labrador will soon be forced to live a more monitored and regulated life, and—as has happened in Belize over the past decade and a half—they will be made to depend on forces largely outside their control for knowledge about their river. They will be forced to rely on market-based food and water “security” to replace what were once common access resources that have now been polluted by the dam. Is the future of the Churchill River in Labrador now on display in Belize?

In the years leading up to its sanctioning and completion in 2005, the Chalillo dam became a well-known cause célebre of environmental activism. Star Wars actor Harrison Ford wrote an editorial in the Globe and Mail condemning Fortis’ environmentally destructive practices. Bruce Barcott’s bestselling “environmental thriller,” Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw (2006), follows the story of  the resistance against the dam from the jungles of Belize to Fortis’ board meetings at the Holiday Inn in St. John’s (which Belizeans occupied in 2001).  

But what has been happening since the Chalillo dam came online?

Human Rights & Human Wrongs

The nearly fifteen years since the dam has been in operation are marked by lesser known (but no less important) battles to get Fortis’s company BECOL (Belize Electrical Company) to address environmental hazards that now stand between local people and use of the Macal river.

In 2015, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights accepted a petition from BELPO (The Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy) on behalf of communities downstream from Fortis’ dam. It alleges that the failure to monitor hazards and implement safety procedures has resulted in a violation of human rights—as defined in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (or the Bogota Declaration), agreed to by Nations of the Americas in 1948. BELPO claims that the rights to life, health, water, and the right to access information have been compromised by Belize’s failure to force Fortis/BELCO to implement an Environmental Compliance Plan designed to provide protection for those living in the environs of the dam.

In 2017, the Santa Clara University School of Law’s Legal Clinic took an interest in BELPO’s petition against Belize and Fortis. They believe that the case can help define the legal obligations of states and businesses to protect economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights in large development projects like Chalillo, which contaminate rivers and cause harm to rural and indigenous peoples. What can this battle for dam safety in a developing Central American nation teach us 3000 miles north to the provincial home of Fortis, the multinational that has brought these troubles to Belize?

In his 2001 editorial on Chalillo, Harrison Ford claimed that “Fortis couldn’t build a dam like Chalillo at home in Newfoundland where public pressure has led to a moratorium on dams that destroy riverine wildlife and fisheries.” By now, we all know that this is no longer true—if indeed it ever was. Since the turn of the millennium, our energy security policies have been made over to offer an investment climate like the one Fortis found in Belize.

Public Risk for Private Gain

Since the 1990s, Newfoundland and Labrador and Belize have been tied together through a new wave of corporate globalization that has been using state power to turn public utilities into private investment vehicles, often at great social and environmental cost. In the early 90s, Premier Clyde Wells—former CEO of Fortis predecessor Newfoundland Light & Power Co. Ltd.—tried to arrange the sale of publicly-owned Newfoundland Hydro to Fortis. Shareholders would thereby have come to own, among other things, the provincial share of Churchill Falls. When that failed, due in large part to a public uprising against it, Fortis turned their attention to opportunities for privatizing public utilities in the Caribbean.

Muskrat Falls is built by a crown corporation, Nalcor, rather than a private enterprise like Fortis. As discussed in Part 1, the legislation which created Nalcor in 2007 gave it commercial privileges designed to allow it to conduct itself much like Fortis did in Belize. It did not have to disclose financial information to the public. For the Muskrat Falls project, it did not have to answer to a public utilities commission responsible to the public interest. In short, Nalcor’s ‘neoliberal’ de-regulated structure allowed it to bring home the toxic mix of bad economics and lax environmental assessment that got Chalillo up and running. It provided financial security for investors at the expense of increased energy prices and a downstream sacrifice zone. The divide that Harrison Ford recognized between a developed country like Canada and a developing one like Belize has been seriously eroded over the past two decades. Should we be surprised that the norms and conventions for “managing” risks, fine-tuned by marauding corporations in the developing world, are finally coming home to roost?

The public inquiry that is now underway into Muskrat Falls is focused almost exclusively on economic questions about the project’s cost escalations and whether or not the mega-dam was the best option for the province’s energy needs. The terms of reference do not include the catastrophic flooding risks or methylmercury poisoning in Labrador, each of which is now understood to be a much greater threat to human health than it was at the time of Nalcor’s initial environmental assessments for the dam. Muskrat Falls is proceeding with no clear intention to mitigate the threat of methylmercury, nor to investigate the possible instability of the North Spur using new scientific methods and data as geophysicists in Sweden are still recommending.

World Class Experts

Like Muskrat Falls, Chalillo was sanctioned and built in spite of significant concerns and court challenges over its lax environmental assessments. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which Belize approved for the Chalillo dam in 2002 was produced by the Canadian firm AMEC and funded by Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).  Critics claimed that the assessment had been biased in Fortis’ favor to help the Canadian business to secure a lucrative contract in the small Central American country. Bruce Barcott, writing in Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, claimed that “AMEC wasn’t hired to produce a balanced assessment of the pro and cons of Chalillo. It was hired to persuade the Belizean government to greenlight the project.”

The Macal River in the rainforest of Belize is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the Americas, but the AMEC environmental review discounted the threats posed to the habitat of rare species of birds, and of tapirs and jaguars and countless forms of floral and vegetative life. Flooding for the dam would mean habitat destruction upstream and alteration of the naturally occurring seasonal fluctuation in water levels downstream. The AMEC report paid equally little attention to the destruction of Mayan artifacts and archaeological sites, now flooded in the creation of the reservoir.

According to Barcott, AMEC’s assessment claimed even the dam was built on granite—until a second report carried out by geologists at the Museum of Natural History in London showed that it was it actually built on limestone and shale near a geological fault line. This made the project a much more dangerous undertaking.

In Belize, BELPO contested the legality of the assessment supporting Chalillo all the way to the Privy Council in England. When that failed, and the dam was approved on its questionable assessment, they turned their attention to ensuring enforcement of the Environmental Compliance Plan (EPC), which was supposed to inform people of the dangers posed by the dam and to create plans to protect against them.

Fortis’ company BECOL was required to monitor and provide information about changes to potable drinking water quality, the threat of mercury poisoning from eating fish, and flooding. The EPC required the company to create a system of alarm sirens and an Emergency Preparedness Evacuation Plan in case of a dam break. Candy Gonzales of BELPO explained to me that the ECP provides good environmental laws, but it has not been able to make BECOL implement them.

“Just Eat Less Fish”

In 2017, the Santa Clara University Law School’s Legal Clinic submitted an amicus curiae, a document providing relevant evidence in support of BELPO’s petition to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. This very interesting dossier contains a review of scientific and other kinds of information gathered about the problems created by the dam, and evidence gathered from interviews with people whose lives have been affected by it in different ways.

Scientific evidence gathered in the amicus shows that water quality has been seriously degraded by high levels of turbidity—i.e. suspended particulate—in the water that is regularly released under high pressure from by the dam. BELPO has released aerial photos which clearly show clean water behind the dam and dirty water released downstream.

Dr. Guy Lanza, a water scientist at State University of New York, has determined that the once clear river water has been so muddied by the dam that it can no longer be cleaned of contaminants with agents like chlorine. Interviews have confirmed that villagers on the river have had to either purchase bottled water, which many simply cannot afford, or to drink river water and risk sickness from water-borne disease. People also complain that the water is no longer suitable for swimming and bathing. Many don’t let their children swim in the water because it leaves them with a skin rash and itch.

There is equal concern and confusion about the threat posed by elevated mercury levels in fish, which form an important part of the local diet and economy.  

The original environmental plan required that mercury be monitored for five years, or until it returns to background levels measured before construction. According to Candy Gonzales of BELPO, what happened instead is that five years after the dam opened, when mercury levels decreased but still remained elevated above normal, monitoring was stepped to much less frequent intervals. Information sessions about mercury have not been held as planned and there is general confusion about what fish is and is not safe to eat. Villagers report that they no longer catch, eat or sell fish from the river for fear of mercury contamination.

Catastrophic flooding is a significant threat from the Chalillo dam, as it is at Muskrat Falls.  Chalillo’s geology had also been called into question from the project’s start. It is built in an earthquake zone. For this reason, BECOL was required to develop a flood warning alarm system and evacuation plan. In the area around the river in San Ignacio, you see flood evacuation routes posted but outside the city, upstream in more remote areas closer to the dam, people are concerned about the lack of information and an inadequate warning system. BECOL had initially claimed that they satisfied the compliance by posting safety information online, but as the Supreme Court pointed out to them in 2008: “you can’t depend on cyberspace in the middle of a dam break.”

What to Expect When You’re Expecting (a Hydroelectric Megaproject)

I met Judy Deplooy on the grounds of the beautiful 45-acre Belize Botanical Gardens she operates on the banks of the Macal River. She is a part of a group that has been trying to get Fortis to comply with the Environmental Compliance Plan. We discussed the Muskrat and Chalillo dams and the strikingly similar stories of high finance and lax assessments. After she explains how Chalillo came to life through questionable environmental review, she is not surprised to learn about similar problems we now face with Muskrat Falls.

Chalillo is almost fifteen years ahead of Muskrat Falls. I ask Deplooy what it has been like to live along the flood zone of a poorly regulated dam for all these years. She told me that when she formerly owned the hotel next door, she was asked to draw up an emergency response plan for guest evacuation in case of flooding. But she could get no further information from the state or BECOL about what that required.

She asked how a planned alarm system would work. Come outside and listen for the alarm, she was told. What if I am inside when the dam breaks, she asked. Then it will be on the radio. But what if I don’t have the radio on?

Deplooy describes a lack of accessible information about the threats posed by mercury, flooding and water quality. She confirmed that information sessions required under the ECP have either not occurred or have been poorly advertised.

The Churchill and Macal Rivers are obviously very different places, each with its own unique problems. But more striking than their differences are the similarities in the kinds of crises that have been visited upon them by unwelcome hydroelectric megaprojects.

Mercury poisoning of the ecosystem will force Labradorians to substitute unreliable and inaccessibly priced market goods flown in from elsewhere for their widely available and nutritious country food—just as Belizeans have been forced to stop eating river fish and to rely on bottled water to drink.

Even a brief comparison of these two dam projects in the very different contexts of Canada and Belize reveals some of the common techniques and arrangements through which megaprojects fueled by speculative finance are being brought to life today.  Both these dams rest ultimately on political and social techniques of dispossession that separate people from existing forms of food, water and ‘biopolitical security.’ This leaves them dependent on the goodwill of corporate agencies like Fortis to test, monitor and regulate powerful new invisible threats—threats that cannot be measured, let alone managed, without the aid of the same corporate and state agencies that created the hazards in the first place.

Photo by Jon Parsons.

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