While there has been fiercely vocal advocacy from environmentalists’ quarters against the damming of the Macal River in Cayo, communities in Toledo have not been as forceful in voicing their concerns over the development of the hydro-potential of the Rio Grande watershed, for which the Belize Hydroelectric Development and Management Company (BHDMC) had received a concession in December 2008.
However, a Punta Gorda teacher at the Toledo Community College, Lisa Kile (formerly White), wrote an extensive essay to our newspaper recently, claiming that the residents of San Miguel, a village in Toledo, had been suffering substantial negative impacts from the first hydro-project, a 2.2 MW run-of-river micro-dam for BHDMC’s Hydro Maya project, which provides power to Belize’s national grid.
Kile said that there have been multiple complaints from villagers that the pristine nature of the San Miguel River has been lost: it is no longer deep green and free-flowing; the water is less suitable for washing, and unsafe because there are times now that it rises suddenly, presenting risks for bathing children. She also spoke of children developing skin rashes and sores from contact with the turbid waters – which, accounts claim, have turned “reddish brown” and “thick just like masa” (a corn mix).
She also reports that promises developers had made at a public meeting before the dam’s construction of lower electricity rates, scholarships and jobs have been broken.
To get the developer’s side of the story, Amandala called the Punta Gorda listing for Mark J. Tippers, the president of the company, an Englishman, but no one answered the phone.
Lisel Alamilla, executive director of the Ya’axché Conservation Trust (YCT), told Amandala Wednesday, when we spoke with her about the issue, that her organization had been receiving expressions of concern from villagers that are similar to what Kile has articulated.
The concerns over the San Miguel River come at a time when there are talks of a feasibility study for a second hydro in Toledo by the same company. As we had reported in July, the hydro company had cleared portions of both the Colombia Forest Reserve and the Bladen Nature Reserve, without having gotten required approvals from the Forestry Department and the Department of the Environment. No punitive measures were taken; instead, government officials asked the company to cease its works, and it complied.
Subsequently, a team from YCT visited the area along with officials from the Forestry Department and the Department of the Environment to do a damage assessment. When we asked about the outcome of that assessment on Wednesday, Alamilla told us that it is still pending.
Kile (a US national who lives and farms in the area of San Pedro Colombia) expressed to Amandala that she is utterly dependent on the river for water and is deeply concerned about the reported changes in the watershed.
When Amandala raised the environmental concerns with Chief Environmental Officer, Martin Alegria Thursday afternoon, he toldusthat his department would investigate.
We asked him whether he had received any complaints at all at his office regarding alleged changes at San Miguel. After checking with his staff in the office, he replied that his department had not received any verbal or written communications reporting any adverse impacts by the Hydro Maya project on the watershed.
Alegria told us that unlike the Macal River assessments, which are done every month, the Hydro Maya checks are done only twice a year because it is much smaller. The last time they did an assessment, he said, was probably in March.
“So far there is no indication [of any adverse effect.] Nothing has hit us on the face like the red Macal water,” said Alegria.
He said that he would send a team to do a thorough assessment between the middle and end of November.
He also told us that the team only tests the water and does not speak to villagers to get anecdotal information. He did, however, agree with our suggestion that anecdotes should be taken from area residents on any changes in the river since the micro-dam was built.
The Chief Environmental Officer also told us that if the Belize Hydroelectric Development and Management Company were to build a second dam in Toledo, it would have to submit an Environmental Impact Assessment for consideration.
Kile is adamant, though, that things should not get that far, as not only would a dam adversely affect the river, in her view; but hydro technology is now an outmoded form of power generation that is not worth it for Belize to pursue, she contends.
According to the high school teacher, she is in the process of gathering 1,000 signatures for a petition to submit to the Minister of Natural Resources, Gaspar Vega.
Kile said that three of her TCC Social Studies students will also do their School-based assessments (SBA’s) on the impact of the Toledo dam.
According to Alamilla, if the second hydro project were to be approved, it would mean that the Government of Belize would have to de-reserve the protected area. This would beg the question: Would it make economic, social and environmental sense?, she elaborated.
Alamilla identified the area eyed for further hydro development as part of the Maya Mountain Massif, prided as one of the largest and most pristine vestiges of biodiversity in our region – a treasure which, said Alamilla, they are working hard to protect.