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Oceana Magazine Fall 2011: A Precious Resource at Risk

By Emily Fisher

Offshore drilling threatens Belize’s irreplaceable marine ecosystem, but Oceana has a plan to stop it before it starts. 

Just thinking about Belize conjures images of snorkelers lazily paddling in crystal blue waters, white sand beaches and tropical coral reefs surrounded by colorful fish.

There’s a reason for that: The Belize Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to an array of marine life, including dolphins, the largest number of Antillean manatees in the world, many species of sharks and rays, as well as groupers, snappers and other reef fish. According to studies by the Sea Around Us Project at the University of British Columbia, around 600 fish species and more than 2000 varieties of sea life can be found in Belize, representing half of the marine life found in the entire Caribbean.

But Belize’s identity, and the health of its marine life and economy, could change forever if oil drilling begins in this small nation.

Oceana discovered this year that the Belizean government has granted oil drilling concessions throughout most of the country’s offshore waters. In collaboration with the Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage, Oceana conducted a nationwide campaign this summer, from cities to remote villages, gathering 17,000 signatures to require a national referendum to ban offshore oil exploration and drilling in Belize. The signatures represent more than 10 percent of the 165,000 registered voters in the country. Oceana is the first non-profit organization to gather enough signatures to trigger a national referendum in the country’s history.

Now that the signatures have been collected, Oceana will decide the best time to submit them to the government, which will then conduct a national vote.

“There are several ways to influence the government,” said Niall Gillett, Oceana’s communications officer in Belize. “One is to ask them nicely, but we don’t think that will happen. The second way is to have voter influence. We are working with coastal communities and focusing on the tourism sector.”

Tourism is Belize’s largest economic sector, expected to account for BZ $565 million (US $285 million) in 2011. Although the government has touted offshore oil as an abundant source of revenue and jobs, economists and scientists say otherwise.

This summer, top marine scientists and economists from around the world, including Oceana board member and fisheries biologist Dr. Daniel Pauly, hosted a historic conference in Belize called “Too Precious to Drill: The Marine Biodiversity of Belize.”

More than 20 international experts discussed their research on Belize’s marine biodiversity and the potential impact of drilling in Belizean waters. In a letter to the people of Belize signed at the end of the conference, the scientists urged the government to compare the value of Belize’s marine resources to the potential value of oil and called on the people to choose wisely.

Among the conference attendees was Dr. Gordon Kirkwood, an independent petroleum engineering and economics consultant in Belize and a former senior advisor at BP. According Dr. Kirkwood’s analysis, the Belize Barrier Reef System is the nation’s top foreign exchange earner, as well as a natural disaster shield and food security provider, thus serving as a major source of jobs. Belize’s marine system has an estimated monetary value of at least $231 million a year based on the erosion and storm protection it provides, as well as tourism and fisheries.

While the oil industry argues that projected revenues in Belize would increase as a result of offshore oil, the risky nature of offshore drilling would likely result in a decline in tourism and fisheries, Kirkwood reported. And marine life would suffer, too. Dolphins, which are a tourist magnet, would be threatened starting with the exploration phase, when oil companies use seismic air guns that can cause auditory damage and decompression sickness in marine mammals.

And during drilling and production, dolphins would be vulnerable to the effects of chronic oil pollution from even small spills and leaks. Offshore drilling in Belize would also likely have a negative effect on jobs. A significant number of people in the tourism and fisheries industries could be left jobless in the event of a spill.

And because offshore drilling jobs require specialized technical skills, they would largely be filled by foreign experts rather than Belizeans. There are currently no top tier oil companies in Belize, and the small oil companies that are in the country have no offshore drilling experience.

“The Belize workforce was never trained in the specialized skills needed in the offshore oil industry,” said Audrey Matura-Shepherd, Oceana’s vice president for Belize. “And due to the lack of capacity in the regulatory arm of our government, even basic standards for offshore operations could not be adequately monitored.”

Many Belizeans who watched the Deepwater Horizon disaster unfold in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 worry that a similar catastrophe could occur in their marine ecosystem. Shallow coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves, all part of the Belizean reef system, are among the most sensitive environments to oil, and it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to clean them up.

In addition, the reef is already under stress. The most recent report card by the Healthy Reefs Initiative on the health of Belize’s reefs showed that 65 percent of the reef is rated as being in poor or critical health, with only 1 percent considered to be in very good health.

“Key to the fight against offshore oil exploration in Belize is the need to educate the masses about an industry which, prior to 2005, never formed part of their economy much less their vocabulary,” said Matura-Shepherd. “With this in mind, Oceana in Belize has used every occasion to keep the issue of no offshore oil drilling in Belize at the forefront.”

During September, when Belizeans take time off to celebrate the nation’s independence and heritage, Oceana carried its message to the streets as active participants in this year’s annual street Carnival festivities. Oceana constructed a float for the parade and sponsored a carnival band under the theme “Saving Belize’s Atlantis,” which featured a sea witch with tentacles dressed in black to represent the threat of oil drilling.

Oceana’s carnival entry won in all three categories of the competition, including first place overall. The message from scientists, economists and citizens alike was as clear as the Caribbean Sea: Oil rigs don’t belong in Belizean waters.