IACHR: Human Rights Violations by the Chalillo Dam – 11 years on

In 2004, a petition against the construction of the Chalillo Dam in Belize was presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on behalf of the Maya people and those living downstream of the dam by The Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO). Since that time the dam has been built; but now the IACHR has declared that the petition has validity. In such cases we might ask if it acceptable that the IACHR should take eleven years to reach a decision regarding the validity of petitions. We include below the press statement recently released by BELPO.


June 21, 2016

 In an important decision, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has opened a case against the Government of Belize (GOB) regarding the controversial Chalillo Dam built on Belize’s Macal River in 2005.

The decision is in response to a petition from The Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO) filed in 2004 on behalf of the Maya People and those living downstream of the dams who say their rights − including their rights to life, liberty and personal security, religious freedom, benefits of culture, legal rights and the right to work − have been violated.

In their brief to the Commission, BELPO documents show how the riverine populations have been harmed: water quality has been so degraded that people can no longer bathe in or drink the water; fish have been poisoned by mercury leaving citizens without their vital source of protein; more than 300 Mayan archaeological sites have been lost under the reservoir eliminating a large body of knowledge to the Maya; changes to river flows and sediment deposition have destroyed farms and ecotourism businesses along the river and unemployment has risen.


Also, BELPO says the Government of Belize has, in defiance of its own institutions and legislation, refused to abide by the Orders of the Belize Supreme Court to enforce the Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP) for Chalillo, which is a contract between the Government and the owner of the dam to take measures to mitigate the damages caused by the dam.

The GOB has also failed to inform the people on the quality of the Macal River water, to disclose mercury levels in fish to the public on a timely basis and to provide a viable warning system to alert downstream populations of dam breaks including the failure to disclose that the dam is built in a seismically active area.

IACHR’s decision to admit our petition is recognition of the severity of the harms to health, safety and property rights, as well as indigenous rights by the destruction of over 300 major Mayan archaeological sites as well as recognition that the people have a right to know the extent and nature of the harm inflicted upon them by contracts made in their name with corporations.

The opening of the case is, above all, a victory for the affected communities, the Maya people of Belize and local social movements, who have endured for all these years, and remain strong and determined in their search for justice and compensation.

As an organization representing the victims of the Chalillo Dam, BELPO remains committed to exposing the human rights violations directly caused by the dam’s construction.

BELPO acknowledges the integral role played by the Environmental Law Alliance (ELAW), the International Rivers Network (including a valiant fighter for the people, Berta Cáceres assassinated in Honduras earlier this year) and Probe International of Canada in the struggle to get these abuses into this international body.

Press Contacts:

George Gonzalez

Dr. Candy Gonzalez

The Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO)

P.O. Box 105, San Ignacio Town, Cayo District, Belize

Phone: +501- 824-2476   | email: belpo.belize@gmail.com | candybz@gmail.com


The Sorry History of the Chalillo Dam in Belize

The version of this ‘Sorry History’ that was given in the book was much abridged. This version is the full version as given by Probe International.


  • The campaign to stop the Chalillo dam begins in 1999.Poster against the Chalillo Dam
  • Environmentalists warn that Chalillo will destroy endangered species’ habitat and major Maya archeological sites, be technically compromised, and uneconomic. Fortis perseveres nonetheless.
  • Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) secretly pays AMEC, a Montreal-based engineering firm, $250,000 to prepare a feasibility study of Chalillo justifying construction. U.S. author Bruce Barcott calls the report “a masterpiece of spin and obfuscation.”
  • AMEC fails to record geological faults and fractures in the project area and says bedrock at the dam site is “granite.” In fact, it is sandstones interbedded with soft shales which have poor load-bearing capacity.
  • London’s Natural History Museum hired by AMEC, predicts the demise of threatened species, and advises against construction of dam. Fortis ignores the warning.
  • Probe International demands that CIDA recall AMEC’s report and notify the Belize authorities that its conclusions are invalid. CIDA denies responsibility.
  • Environmentalists launch lawsuit in the Supreme Court of Belize which is then appealed to the Privy Council, Belize’s highest court of appeal, and loses by a slim margin.
  • Fortis completes construction of the Chalillo dam in 2005 and impoundment begins.
  • Fortis fails to fully comply with its legally required environmental compliance plan. In July 2007, Belizean environmentalists sue and win court case, ordering the government to monitor water quality in the Macal River, establish an emergency warning system to protect downstream residents in the event of a dam break, monitor levels of mercury in the fish and inform the public of findings.
  • Macal River water quality declines. Swimmers and bathers complain of stomach problems, itchy skin, and skin rashes.
  • Authorities warn people not to eat fish from the river because of possible contamination from methyl mercury, a toxin formed through bacterial synthesis in flooded soils and vegetation, which attacks the central nervous system in humans.
  • Sharon Matola, Director of the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Centre, reports that Scarlet Macaws still return to try and nest along the Macal River and its tributary, the Raspaculo, but their nesting trees are gone and the reservoir becomes “a big mud-hole” every dry season. Nesting boxes the government nailed to trees as a substitute are, says Ms. Matola, a “total failure.” BirdLife International predicts the Scarlet Macaw population will die out within a few years due to habitat loss and poaching by the recent influx of dam construction workers.
  • Under Fortis’s monopoly, Belizeans now pay more for their electricity than consumers in other Central American countries.
  • Summer 2009, shock sediment discharges begin to flow down the Macal River from the Chalillo dam, contaminating the river and marine systems downstream.
  • Belize environmentalists seek an injunction in the Supreme Court of Belize to stop the release of sediments.
  • September 2009, Belizean authorities discuss shutting down Chalillo’s operations to stop the sediment pollution

Written by Probe International, December 2009


Anyone interested in the story of the Chalillo Dam are referred to the interview with Candy Gónzalez, in the Belize set of interviews

Photos: River turbidity below the Chalillo Dam

chalillo-photo1 Chalillo-photo2-090803 chalillo-photo3-SanIgnacio-090808

El Salvador urged to declare environmental health emergency in Jiquilisco Bay

By Stephanie Williamson, ENCA Newsletter No.54, November 2011

The southern zone of Jiquilisco Bay has become the country’s priority concern for human health and environmental protection due to critical levels of contamination in the watercourses and saltwater mangrove swamps. A year ago health authorities were alerted to very high incidence of kidney disease, following a survey conducted by Cuban renal experts. The survey found that 11 out of every 100 inhabitants in the Jiquilisco and Bajo Lempa areas suffer chronic renal health problems and that the incidence is particularly high among men. This compares with an incidence rate of 2 per 100 in other countries. There are suspicions that the problem may be related to contamination of water sources, including wells, by insecticides and herbicides used in cotton production decades ago. The Mayor of Jiquilisco has called for the government to declare the zone a state of emergency so that all relevant government agencies prioritise efforts to address the health problems.

The Salvadoran Waterworks Board and the Ministry of Environment are working together to provide clean drinking water as a first step. Locals are demanding a water treatment plant to be set up as they fear that many of the artisanal wells used by rural communities may be contaminated.

The Jiquilisco Bay is one of the jewels of El Salvador’s ecological crown, providing home to over 1,500 species of animals and plants, and serving as an important wetlands for migratory birds. The Bay and its 18,000 hectares of mangroves, the most extensive in all Central America’s Pacific coast, have been declared an international RAMSAR site and Biosphere Reserve. José Acosta from the Salvadoran Centre for Appropriate Technology believes the Bay area deserves permanent special attention and should become a fully protected ecological reserve.

An independent Salvadoran research unit has now detected residues of 10 prohibited pesticides in water samples and evidence that empty pesticide drums are being used to store water for drinking purposes for humans and cattle. The expanding sugarcane cultivation is being blamed for a current wave of pesticide contamination, with run-off draining into the mangrove forests. Ecosystem degradation, along with deforestation by the large-scale shrimp farming industry, has led to an 80 per cent reduction in mangroves in recent years.

So far in 2011 the authorities have distributed 4,000 household water filter units and have submitted for presidential approval plans for a larger programme for drinking water supply. The government awaits news of a US$5 million World Bank project to restore ecological health in Jiquilisco and support employment and local fishing livelihoods.

‘El Salvador: Bahía de Jiquilisco con residuos de plaguicidas’, La Prensa Gráfica, 7th October 2010.
‘ANDA en busca de solución de corto plazo’, La Prensa Gráfica, 7th March 2011.
‘Pobladores y autoridades preocupados por casos de deficiencia renal en Jiquilisco’, La Pagina.com 8th August 2011.

Major types of Public-Public Partnerships (PUPs)

  • Partnerships between two public authorities
  • Partnerships between public authorities and communities (and/or NGOs as well as with trade unions)
  • Development partnerships (with an international dimension)
  • International associations

David Hall, Jane Lethbridge and Emanuele Lobina (2005) ‘Public-public partnerships in health and essential services’, Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU), London.

Water privatisation protests in El Salvador

Public protest against water privatisation increased dramatically in El Salvador from 2006, when former President Tony Saca’s ARENA party proposed a new General Water Law. The law, not yet passed, would decentralise water administration from the national to municipal levels where local governments would have to contract private firms to manage water for up to 50 years. Civil society groups in the country continue to argue that this is tantamount to privatisation.

In September 2006, residents of Santa Eduviges – a small community of 300 near the San Salvador suburb of Soyapango – blocked the Gold Highway that leads into the capital. Protesters were demanding the de-privatisation of the town’s water supply system with its management to be taken over by the national water agency, ANDA.[1] They occupied the road from morning until evening when police fired tear gas to dislodge the crowd and arrested five people.[2] They were later released.

Then in March 2007, on World Water Day, approximately 5,000 people took to the streets of San Salvador to protest against the high cost of water and its unjust distribution.

On July 2, 2007 another anti-privatisation demonstration took place in the town of Suchitoto. El Salvadoran police used rubber bullets and tear gas and arrested 14 protestors. Thirteen were charged with acts of terrorism and became known as the ‘Suchitoto 13’. Jason Wallach, writing on the Upside Down World website, said that after six months of deliberation, all charges were eventually dropped. On 2 May, 2008, however, the youngest protestor – 19 year old Hector Antonio Ventura – was murdered by unknown assailants in a house in Valle Verde, Suchitoto.[3]

His death is thought to have been politically motivated considering that just days earlier, he had agreed to speak at the Day Against Impunity to be held on July 2, the first anniversary of the arrest of the Suchitoto 13.[4]

Human rights groups including Amnesty International accused the government of unjustly using anti-terrorism legislation in order to quell future public protest.[5]

[1] Jason Wallach (27 September 2006) ‘El Salvador’s Water: Not for Sale’, Upside Down World, http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/1276/68/ (Accessed 21/07/09)
[2] North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) website https://nacla.org/node/1499 (Accessed 21/07/09)
[3] Op.cit. (Jason Wallach)
[4] UNHCR website, http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4a6452bc8.html (Accessed 21/07/09)
[5] Amnesty International website, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR29/002/2007/en/a09ac5c1-5055-47ff-b2fa-7ba042d9e6ab/amr290022007en.html (Accessed 21/07/09)

A new definition of hope – community organisation for water in El Salvador

By Ana Ella Gómez, Centre for the Defence of the Consumer, El Salvador

The Centre for the Defence of the Consumer, where I work, is part of a citizen campaign called Blue Democracy that aims to reclaim the human right to water in El Salvador. We are strengthening a multi-sector alliance in which the common point of departure is the defence of water. …

We are now working on a campaign to reform the country’s constitution and get water recognised as a human right. … We are also working on a proposed water policy that deals with three main types of services: state, municipal, and communal. In the case of El Salvador, we’re convinced that we have to claim the public water supply by strengthening the public company that already exists [ANDA]. We want an efficient public company but we also want a public company with public participation. We also want to strengthen the municipalities that provide good local development with participation by the people. ….

One of Latin America’s victories has been the belief that water must be in public hands, must be held by the community, that the people have the power to make their own decisions and that, whether a company is public or is communally owned, it is essential that the citizens, the men and women, participate in strategic decision-making. …

In the end, what do we want? We want people to be able to not just share their opinions, but also to make their own decisions. Each model must be based on the reality of each community and each community needs to define what type of public, community set-up meets its populations’ needs. We want a commitment to protect our water, a commitment made by everyone, a shared responsibility. We want a system in which service providers are also responsible for protecting and taking care of the water. ….

Right now, our biggest advantage is that we have constructed our own alternative and the commitment to defend it. Our successes so far demonstrate that another way is possible. But the threats continue. Neither the multilateral institutions nor the big corporations are going to yield what they’ve won, whether those victories were from trade treaties or from government policy. …

Source: ‘Changing The Flow: Water Movements in Latin America’, a report by Food and Water Watch, Red Vida, Transnational Institute, The RPR Network and Other Worlds. 2009.

Marina Puesta Del Sol, Nicaragua

Reproduced from ENCA 38, June 2005, by Martin Mowforth

The Marina Puesta Del Sol is located in the Pacific coastal community of Aserradores in the Cosigüina Peninsula of Nicaragua. The Cosigüina Peninsula is an agricultural area characterised by extreme rural poverty surrounded by coastal communities such as Aserradores in which most families have traditionally made their living by artisanal fishing and small-scale shrimp farming. Few of the 143 communities in the area have electricity and outside the main town of El Viejo the water supply is from wells or rivers and the most common sanitation system is a sump latrine. The village of Aserradores has a population of approximately 500.

Roberto Membreño (left) and Max Garay

Roberto Membreño (left) and Max Garay

The Marina Puesta Del Sol is the project of Roberto Membreño, a millionaire US businessman who was born in Nicaragua. Begun in the year 2001, the marina and hotel complex has around 120 berths and a hotel offering 33 luxury suites, a driving range, swimming pools, tennis courts, air strip, helipad, restaurants, shops and many other smaller facilities for guests.

Although the development has other investors, Mexican and North American, it is closely and personally identified with Señor Membreño, a personal friend of Enrique Bolaños, Nicaraguan president at the time of construction of the marina. It is believed that the development involved an investment of at least US$100 million on the part of Sr. Membreño. The whole environment exudes wealth and opulence and is clearly for the ultra-rich only. As Membreño himself says, “Look at this. It’s superb. My carpenters from Corinto have taught the local workers to do things like this. They have skills now that they could not have dreamed of before.”[1]

Membreño recognises that few of the locals will be able to provide the services he requires for his guests in Marina Puesta Del Sol without training. He argues forcefully, however, that the benefits of his seafaring tourism development trickle down to the locals through the construction phase of the project in which some of them were hired as labourers and trainees for positions such as service providers and attendants. He also believes that the development could give rise to a range of other related businesses in the vicinity. The potential for trickle-down benefit in the community exists, and it is hard to find anyone in Aserradores who does not acknowledge that some local people have benefited through employment in the development.

It is not difficult, however, to find local opposition to the marina – the story of Marina Puesta Del Sol2005 mpds piscina y yate is not as clear-cut and as widely beneficial as the developer’s publicity claims. The development has necessitated the purchase of a considerable amount of land in Aserradores, most of which is now policed by private guards and protected by barbed wire and ‘Private Property’ notices. The fishermen of the community have been left with only one narrow access point to the estuary, now crowded with boats; access to the estuary and the sea is prohibited in all but a few points which are not owned by Sr. Membreño; most of the land previously owned by the Mario Carrio Chevez fishing cooperative in agreement with the municipality was sold off, in dubious circumstances, to Sr. Membreño; two short stretches of estuarine mangrove vegetation have been destroyed and replaced by white sand brought from the Pacific Ocean coast of the area; and heavy pressure has been exerted on one particular family to quit their land which now forms something of an island surrounded by the marina.

Probably the most critical of the local issues arising from the development, however, and the one that generates the most heated sentiment is the lack of suitable provision of potable water for residents of Aserradores, especially when set aside the provision of swimming pools, a number of hydro-massage whirlpools and luxurious bathrooms in the hotel suites. For years the community has had problems with its water supply. Water in the wells in the immediate area is too saline to be potable and subterranean water in general in this area is too contaminated with agrochemicals to be of use. In 2003 the supply of water was identified as the highest priority for resolution by over half the population, the next major problem (the lack of electricity) being identified by less than twenty per cent.[2] Francisco José Maliaño Molina, a former leader of the community now retired and tending his herd of goats, explains how in 2002 he sent a letter to Sr. Membreño, signed by over 80 residents, asking him to take into account in his development the community’s need for potable water. He never received a reply and concluded that: “he’s not interested in the community.”[3] Juan Alberto Chieres Casco, a member of the local administrative committee, related that “members of the local committee have discussed the problem [of water supply] with Membreño and he suggested that he was going to do something about it; but we don’t know when.”[4]

On the destruction of mangroves either side of the major quay to make way for white sand brought in from the nearby Pacific coast, in my discussions with him in 2003 Sr. Membreño was fulsome in his praise of the geologist who had assured him that the respective ecosystems would not be adversely affected. It has to be remarked, however, that it would be difficult to find any environmentalist or a geologist not in Membreño’s pay who would agree that such actions would have no effect.

Regarding land ownership in an2005-mpds-piscina-y-yate-300x194d around the community, residents report that Sr. Membreño’s supposed benevolence towards the local community has concealed his aggressive approach to acquiring the land required for the development. The family of Max Garay is one of the few Nicaraguans families in Aserradores who owned sizeable parcels of land. He explains:

The [fishing] cooperative gave up its rights to the Marina Puesta Del Sol and the marina began to develop a hostile attitude towards various residents, including my family. … [Membreño] has managed, through buying influence, to turn the illegal into the legal. … Bit by bit he has closed down our spaces along the estuary and at his whim they have closed our access to the sea for subsistence. … The judicial system in Nicaragua is very easy to corrupt.[5]

Max Garay’s wife, Tadea, adds: “I wanted to talk directly with him so that we could put all our cards on the table and tell him that I am not against his project. Our country needs progress. The only thing that I am asking is that he respects our rights.”[6] Allan Bolt, a journalist with El Nuevo Diario, one of Nicaragua’s leading daily newspapers, confirms this version of events:

Everybody, including the Garay family, welcomed the new tourism project enthusiastically because it meant work and increasing affluence for all. But it seems that this investor has his own vision of how he wants the countryside to appear and what type of people he wants to see there, so he has closed the public right of way to the shore (which is unconstitutional, but which the authorities have allowed), he has prohibited his employees from making purchases in Garay’s mini-store, he has tried to throw them off the Island of Aserradores (despite their land titles), and he has been supported in this ugly game by all the powers of the state.[7]

Some benefits have trickled down to a few members of the community of Aserradores, but these appear to have been more than offset by the trickle-down of a number of disbenefits to various residents, although it is an impossible task to quantify the net effect of these different impacts. But putting aside all the eulogistic publicity material in favour of the development, all the local criticisms against it and all doubts about the very notion of the trickle-down effect, probably the most telling comparison to make is the fact that the amount of money invested in the Marina Puesta Del Sol could have provided a safe potable water supply for every person in the whole of the Cosigüina Peninsula. Such an investment would have spread the health and security benefits of this amount of money to a huge number of people instead of leisure and luxury benefits to a tiny number of people whose wealth is already great enough to ensure their basic human needs and rights.

[1] Roberto Membreño (April 2003) In discussion with Martin Mowforth and others, Aserradores, Nicaragua.
[2] SELVA (2003) ‘Información Linea Base para el Diseño de Proyectos de Desarrollo de la Comunidad de Aserradores’, El Viejo, Nicaragua.
[3] Francisco José Maliaño Molina (September 2004) In interview, Aserradores, Nicaragua.
[4] Juan Alberto Chieres Casco (September 2004) In interview, Aserradores, Nicaragua.
[5] Max and Tadea Garay (September 2004) In interview, Aserradores, Nicaragua.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Allan Bolt (19 December 2002) ‘Turismo, soberanía y desarrollo’, El Nuevo Diario, Managua.

Costa Rica’s water supply

Extracts from an article in Semanario Universidad (Costa Rica), 03.06.09, ‘Water is in a state of emergency’, (p.3)

Ana Isabel Barquero, Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Programme of Research into and Management of Water of Costa Rica’s National University (PRIGA-UNA), warns that despite the abundance of water in the country its administration requires improvement if any degree of efficiency is to be achieved. Indeed, as a specialist in this subject, she described the situation of water in the country as “an emergency”.

Barquero stated that underground waters which are the major source of the household water supply are being contaminated by chemicals such as nitrates and other toxic substances which are used in agriculture. She particularly indicated that in the Caribbean coastal areas the chemicals used in pineapple and banana cultivation are reaching the rivers. A recent Nature Conservancy study contained evidence that many of the freshwater wetlands, rivers and lakes from Mexico to Panama and the life they contain are in danger from toxic substances.

She explained that in order to safeguard the water supply, in the first instance a genuine management scheme is required, “starting with the government and including the municipalities and other institutions.”

She singled out tourism which she says must start to use water resources efficiently – in various places in the country so much water is wasted for swimming pools and golf courses.

The Water Forum, El Salvador, 2013

Social Movement Denounces P3 Law Reforms As Water Privatization Scheme

September 18, 2013.

picOn Tuesday, September 10, representatives of the diverse social movement organizations of the Water Forum held a press conference at the National Legislative Assembly to denounce proposed reforms to the controversial Public-Private Partnership (P3) Law as a back door, right-wing effort to privatize water. The reforms seek to include water treatment and administration among the public goods open for private contracts and concession after the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party successfully excluded water from the original legislation.

The Water Forum, which has been pushing for legislation to protect water from privatization efforts for years, criticized the recent formation of an ad-hoc committee by the Assembly’s right-wing parties to study the reforms, calling the move en effort to push through the reforms without public debate. FMLN Legislator Norma Guevara condemned the committee’s creation as “a means to take the issue out of the Treasury Commission and impose a rapid adjustment to incorporate water into the sphere of business, which appears to be one of the clearest interests of the [right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance] ARENA party’s financial backers, the largest economic groups.”

At Tuesday’s event, the Forum presented a letter to the Assembly (full English text here) demanding the exclusion of any schemes to privatize water from all laws debated in the Assembly and an audience with the ad hoc committee to present their arguments in defense of “the human right to water and its sustainability.” Carlos Flores, a member of the Water Forum, declared: “It’s impossible that ARENA continue to see water as a potential source of profit for companies to do what they like with: contaminate our aquifers, exploit state resources, contribute to the extinction of the country’s rivers. We cannot allow more privatization in this country!”

A Managua water project, 2011

After a two year delay, the Nicaraguan Water and Sewer Company (ENACAL) signed contracts with seven Nicaraguan companies to start construction of 49 potable water systems and sewer systems in 27 Managua neighborhoods. The projects are estimated to benefit 130,000 citizens in the capital city and include potable water connections to 10,000 households and sewer connections to 18,000 households.

The project is being financed by a US$38 million credit extended by the Inter-American Development Bank. The project was scheduled to break ground in March 2009, but it suffered setbacks. The money will also go toward increasing the pumping capacity of wells in Managua, updating two sewer treatment plants, as well as toward sewage treatment improvements in Tipitapa and Ciudad Sandino. (La Prensa, Apr. 14)

Reproduced from Nicaragua News 20 April 2011