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Oceana Magazine Summer 2012: The People’s Referendum

By Emily Fisher

The din against offshore drilling in Belize continues to grow, and Oceana is leading the chorus.

According to a poll conducted by Oceana and pollster Yasmin Andrews, an overwhelming majority of Belizean citizens are outspokenly against allowing drills in the country’s waters, but the national government, which was narrowly re-elected this spring, remains determined to drill for offshore oil.

Last year, Oceana and the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage requested that the government hold a national referendum on whether or not to drill in Belize’s waters. They collected 20,160 signatures on a petition from Belizeans across the country, exceeding 10 percent of the voting population, the threshold required to trigger the government to consider a referendum.

It was a powerful example of democracy in action and should have resulted in a public vote, the first of its kind under the amended Referendum Act of 2008. However, instead of allowing the referendum to proceed, the government rejected 8,047 signatures and the petition was declared invalid. The reason? The government claimed the signatures on the petition didn’t match those on the voter cards closely enough. The people were effectively silenced because of poor penmanship.

But the government underestimated the determination of the Belizean people. In response to the government’s referendum denial, Oceana and the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage quickly organized a “People’s Referendum” the week before the elections at more than 50 polling stations across Belize, where all voting was overseen by a Justice of the Peace. Almost 30,000 Belizeans turned out to cast their votes, and 96 percent of them voted against offshore drilling. The message could not have been clearer.

With a population of just 350,000, Belize has a small economy that is heavily dependent on tourism. The World Travel & Tourism Council calculates that in 2011 tourism contributed to 40,000 jobs in Belize, which is 30 percent of the country’s total employment.

The government’s drilling plans include sites in the middle of the Mesoamerican Reef, which is the world’s second largest barrier reef system, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a destination point for over 60 percent of the tourists that support Belize’s economy. Members of the tourism industry and many other Belizeans have to wonder: What would an oil spill mean for one of the world’s natural wonders and for the future of Belize as a tourist destination? If superimposed over the marine areas of Belize, the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill is seven times larger.

“A spill even one-tenth of that size would have catastrophic effects for the entire country,” said Oceana Vice President for Belize Audrey Matura-Shepherd.

In the aftermath of the election, Oceana is reaching out to local communities in Belize to discuss the next steps in the fight to protect Belize’s reef from offshore oil drilling. Matura-Shepherd told Fox News, “This referendum is not the end. It’s the beginning. We’re using the law to force the government to respect the concerns of the people.”