Roughly 300 Toledo villagers this weekend passed a resolution at a public meeting, calling on the Government of Belize to revoke a 15-year concession granted in December 2008 to Belize Hydroelectric Development & Management Company Limited for the development of the hydro potential of Belize’s majestic Rio Grande basin.
“In the event that this is not addressed in its entirety, we will have no other option but to engage in a peaceful protest to demand that our rights and the rights of our protected areas be fully respected…” a statement from the Columbia River Forest Reserve and Bladen Nature Reserve Committee said.
The committee’s release added that, “The villagers of San Pedro Columbia and the buffer communities of the Columbia Forest Reserve have taken a position asking Prime Minister Barrow to revoke the 15-year concession given to Hydro Maya to build a dam within the reserve.”
They are calling on Barrow “…to act in the interest of Belizeans and our protected areas.”
The resolution reads:
“We hereby call upon the Government of Belize to REVOKE the concession agreement granted to Belize Hydro-electric Development and Management Ltd (BHD) on December 5, 2008, signed by the Prime Minister Hon. Dean O. Barrow.
“This development activity, in one of Belize’s most pristine areas, threatens the ecological integrity of Bladen Nature Reserve and Columbia River Forest Reserve along with the social wellbeing of several communities in the Toledo District.
“We will no longer accept the unsustainable use of our natural resources that are the lifeline of our society.”
The meeting and resolution followed a recent education field visit on which we reported last week. The team that went to view what BHD was doing on-the-ground along the Central River reported back to villagers what they claim are “numerous violations reference BHD’s permit and the National Park System Act.”
Represented at the meeting were San Pedro Columbia, San Miguel, Silver Creek, Golden Stream, Medina Bank, Indian Creek and Big Falls.
Also present were representatives of YCT (Ya’axche Conservation Trust), the Protected Areas Conservation Trust, The Maya Leaders Alliance, the Toledo Alcaldes Association, The Sarstoon-Temash Institute for SATIIM, TIDE, and the Toledo Tour Guides Association, as well as representatives from Monkey River Tour Guide Association, a representative of the Julian Cho Society and one from the Tu’mul Kin Center for Learning, and hotel operators, among others.
Senator Pulcheria Teul witnessed the passing of the resolution, organizers said.
Furthermore, the Toledo Alcaldes Association convened an emergency meeting with all its alcaldes on Monday, December 14, 2009, and unanimously stood in solidarity with the resolution tabled at the San Pedro Columbia meeting held on December 13, 2009, said Nicanor Requeña, Committee Chairman, San Pedro Columbia Village, Toledo.
“Despite a number of requests to our area representative, Hon. Juan Coy and the Chief Forest Officer, Belize Hydroelectric Development & Management Company Ltd. (BHD), none has dialogued with us,” the Committee said.
Following the meeting and the call for revocation of their concession, BHD, whose president, Mark Tippetts, we had been unable to reach despite several calls to his Punta Gorda listing, finally broke its silence by issuing a press release via a paid advert this week.
BHD claims it is not proposing a hydro project on the Central River at this time, but merely undertaking hydrological studies, longitudinal and topographical surveys, as well as environmental studies along a three-mile stretch on Toledo’s Central River. It did not, however, specify the purpose of the studies.
“We do NOT, and take great care so as not to, contaminate the waters of any of the Rivers in the Toledo District,” said the company’s press release.
“Belize Hydroelectric was granted a concession to study and develop the hydroelectric resources of the Rio Grande River and its tributaries, including the Central River, all upstream of the Rio Grande Hydroelectric Project, in the most environmentally sound manner possible,” Tippetts notes.
The company says that its existing hydro, 3.5 MW (not 2.2 MW as had previously been indicated by official sources), has been in operation for the past three years.
The Hydro Maya dam on the Rio Grande is one of several sites that have been identified for potential hydro development in Belize, at places such as Rio On and Privassion Creek in Cayo, in addition to locations in the Stann Creek and Toledo districts.
“To date and to our knowledge, not a single complaint of any kind has been lodged with the Public Utility Commission, the Department of the Environment or any other Government department in regards to Hydro Maya’s hydro plant,” the company says.
As we had reported back in October, Chief Forest Officer Wilber Sabido had indicated to our newspaper that BHD had been levied a $32,000 charge for damages caused to the Columbia River Forest Reserve and Bladen Nature Reserve when workers of the company opened up several miles of road, and cleared camp sites and a helicopter landing pad without getting the required permit from the Forest Department back in July 2009, for scoping prospects for a new dam.
Ya’axché Conservation Trust (YCT) had indicated that, based on its assessment, remediation works alone required to restore the damaged habitats are estimated at $125,000. The YCT additionally suggested other fines.
Sabido said that BHP’s research plan is to set gauges along the river to measure water flow.
The permit he granted BHD in October, signed by him and Tippets, grants permission for “conducting longitudinal and topographical studies and acquiring hydrologic data…”
The permit runs from September 30, 2009, to August 30, 2010, and grants BHD permission to enter and conduct studies in Bladen Nature Reserve.
While the Columbia River Forest Reserve and Bladen Nature Reserve Committee calls on the government to revoke BHD’s concession, it does not call for a revocation of the Forest Department’s permit.
Lisa White Kile, a Toledo high school teacher, had reported in November that over 800 people had signed a petition against the new Columbia and Bladen Forest Reserve dam, directed at Prime Minister Barrow; Minister of Natural Resources, Gaspar Vega; the Department of the Environment and the Forest Department.
So far, government has not issued a statement on the concerns raised by Toledo villagers, and a request for a meeting with Prime Minister Barrow has not yet been met.