At a time when Belize faces dire uncertainty over its power supply, it wouldn’t anger many people to hear that there are efforts to create more hydropower facilities in the country to help meet the country’s growing demand for electricity.
However, the alarm was sounded by the Ya’axché Conservation Trust (YCT) on Wednesday, that the owners of the Hydro Maya facility had bulldozed acres of the Bladen River Nature Reserve and set up camps on the grounds in violation of Belizean laws.
The developer’s claim, says YCT, is that they are doing feasibility studies for an extension to their project – a new dam on the Central River inside the reserve, but the problem is that they are doing it without any approval from the relevant government agencies and without the knowledge of YCT, the co-management agency for the reserve.
Lisel Alamilla, YCT’s executive director, told Amandala that her organization is not anti-dam, but they are concerned about due process, and sustainable development must be the guiding principle for any such initiative.
Chief Forest Officer, Wilber Sabido, confirmed to our newspaper this afternoon that a group of Hydro Maya workers had been found camping inside the Bladen Nature Reserve without the required permits. He also told us that the road had been built without government permission.
Sabido told us that if it is true that the company is looking at building a new dam, then they need not only the requisite Forest Department permits, but an Environmental Impact Assessment as well, if the Government vets the project proposal.
He informed us that on a joint operation between his officers and YCT, joined by Belize security forces last week, they discovered that a road had been opened and a camp had been set up inside the reserve. Another source told us that about 10 Maya, probably from the nearby village of San Pedro Columbia, had been working.
The clearings had been made inside both the Bladen Nature Reserve and the Columbia Forest Reserve, said Sabido.
According to Alamilla, a total of three acres of land was cleared inside the reserve, including a spot for a helicopter landing pad.
A well placed source told our newspaper that he had received reports that the works had been ongoing for about seven weeks, though it was only discovered last Wednesday.
It was a woman from the nearby village of San Pedro Columbia who made a report to YCT, asking them if they were not going to do anything about the developments that had been happening.
Alamilla said that after they went out to investigate, they found that the same campers for Hydro Maya had been shot at by intruding Guatemalan xatéros.
There is concern that with the fresh road opening, said to be 15 to 20 feet wide, xatéros have even better access now to the reserve, which has been plagued for a long time with illegal logging of mahogany and other precious resources, as well as illegal and indiscriminate xaté extraction.
One source told us that the Border Coordinating Unit, controlled by the security forces, had called for no permits to be granted in high-risk areas where there would be possible armed confrontations with xatéros.
Notably, the reconnaissance team found markings for an extension for another 4 miles or so of road to the new camp site. Maya ruins and other archaeological interests are also said to be on the bulldozer trail.
Alamilla said that even though Hydro Maya has a concession agreement with the Government of Belize, the terms of that agreement are clear – that the developers still have to get the requisite permits and approvals from the respective government agencies to carry on the development. They are not exempt.
That concession was awarded by Finance Minister Dean Barrow, the Prime Minister, back in December 2008. It was granted to Belize Hydroelectric Development and Management Company Limited, represented by its president, Mark Jay Tippets, an Englishman, and Jeffrey A. Hanson, secretary.
Sabido said that following last week’s discovery, Hanson told the Department that they would voluntarily cease and desist. Hanson had visited the Ministry yesterday, and he and government officials would have to meet to decide a way forward, Sabido added.
The explanation he gave for what was done inside the reserves, said Sabido, was that they had been scoping the area for an extension to their current dam on the Rio Grande.
The road that had been built, said Sabido, is a reopening of an old road that had been built by the British back in colonial times.
Amandala’s efforts to reach Tippetts in Punta Gorda today proved futile.
(See also YCT’s press release in this issue.)