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 Gráinne 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.
"As soon as you talk about holding back 160 million cubic yards of water in a forested area you can be sure there's going to be putrification [in the reservoir] and that mercury levels will go up and water quality will go down," says Mick Fleming, co-owner of the Chaa Creek Lodge, an upscale ecotourism resort that employs 100 people15 miles downriver from the dam. He and other residents say that water quality declined after the construction of the smaller Mollejon dam a decade ago, a facility that is now also owned by Fortis.
The river, Mr. Fleming argues, is worth more to Belize in its wild state then the electricity Chalillo will deliver, a position several environmental groups have taken as well. The Belize Zoo and others oppose the project, in part because it will flood the only known breeding area in Belize of the endangered scarlet macaw. The area is also home to jaguars, spider monkeys, and a number of uninvestigated Mayan sites.
But those involved in Chalillo say the project is getting a bad rap. "There is no energy-development project that you can undertake that will not have environmental impacts," says Dawn Sampson of Belize Electricity Ltd., a Fortis subsidiary that has a monopoly on power distribution in Belize. "The challenge is to ensure the benefits outweigh the negative impacts."
Fortis says the dam would boost annual domestic production by about 25 percent, and will help control floods, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and, greatly increase the efficiency of an existing dam downstream by storing water for use during the valley's frequent dry spells.
The area where the dam sits is near an active fault and still experiences tremors. But, says Fortis's chief engineer John Evans, "This structure was designed with the same criteria as if it were being built in southern California."
Critics say other solutions to meet peak power demand - generators driven by wind, natural gas, or stalk refuse from the sugar industry - have never been adequately explored.
The root problem, says Ms. Ryder, is a lack of transparency in the decision to build Chalillo. "If there had been an open and competitive bidding process, it would have given the government and consumers the chance to weigh the costs and benefits of each option," she says. "Instead you had a dam-building company come forward and say that there were no other options except to build a dam."
Probe International and other groups are trying to get investors to boycott Fortis, but barring a shareholder revolt, the project looks likely to be completed by the end of 2005.
Patrick McCully, a dam expert at the International Rivers Network, hopes that other countries in the region will weigh all options before rushing ahead with foreign-sponsored dams. "Not every hydro project is wrong, but a lot of unnecessary and poorly performing projects get built because of a lack of transparency," he says.