Yesterday, Belizeâ€™s Supreme Court declared offshore drilling contracts issued by the Government of Belize (in 2004 and 2007) null and void, providing a dramatic and potentially definitive setback to The Government of Belize and the petroleum prospecting companies issued the contracts.
The ruling, handed down by Justice Oswell Legall, was in response to a case brought by Oceana, COLA, and the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage. It effectively ends the Belizean governmentâ€™s immediate effort to allow offshore oil drilling in the Meso American Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world.
Audrey Matura-Shepherd Vice President of Oceana in Belize lauded the courtâ€™s decision:
â€śThis is a great day for the people and country of Belize and its democratic process and it shows that we, as ordinary citizens, need not sit back and only complain about all the wrong decisions our Government makes, but that we can use the Judiciary system to settle them.â€ť
The court overturned the contracts after determining that the government failed to assess the environmental impact on Belizeâ€™s ocean, as required by law, prior to issuing the contracts. The court also found that contracts were made to companies that did not demonstrate a proven ability to contribute the necessary funds, assets, machinery, equipment, tools and technical expertise to drill safely.
Oceana has campaigned against offshore drilling in Belize for more than two years. In 2011, after collecting the 20,000+ signatures required to trigger a national referendum that would allow the public to vote on whether or not to allow offshore oil drilling in Belizeâ€™s reef, the Government disqualified over 8,000 of these signatures effectively on the basis of poor penmanship - stopping the possibility of a vote. Oceana answered by quickly organizing the nationâ€™s first ever â€śPeopleâ€™s Referendumâ€ť on February 29, 2012 in which 29,235 people (Belizeâ€™s entire population is approximately 350,000) came from all over the country to cast their votes.
In this historic vote, 96 percent of voters voted against offshore exploration and drilling.
A huge win out of Belize today: All forms of trawling have been banned in the country's waters. And weâ€™re proud to say that our colleagues in Belize played a crucial role in making it happen.
While there had been a call to ban the destructive fishing gear several years ago, the political will was lacking. But when UNESCO recently threatened to strip the Belize Barrier Reef of its World Heritage Site status, the government took notice. Oceana in Belize collaborated with Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrowâ€™s administration to negotiate the buy-out of the two shrimp trawlers.
Shrimp trawls are notorious for the amount of bycatch (untargeted catch) they haul in. Thousands of sea turtles, marine mammals and untargeted fish are caught in shrimp trawlers around the world every year. Meanwhile, bottom trawlersâ€™ weighted nets effectively raze the ocean floor with every pass, destroying sensitive corals and anything else in their way.
One day in December, the residents of the seaside village of Punta Gorda in Belize looked out to the horizon and saw something unexpected: Jamaican fishing boats. They had arrived, unannounced and without permits, to fish in Belizeâ€™s diverse waters.
Many of Punta Gordaâ€™s local fishermen still work the shallow waters inside the Belize Barrier Reef from individual canoes using age-old methods to provide lobster, shellfish and reef fish for Belizeans, as well as a small but thriving export business. The Jamaican boats, with more sophisticated commercial gear, offered no such promise for the local economy or the continued sustainability of Belizeâ€™s fisheries.
A few unpermitted Jamaican fishing boats may seem like a local hurly-burly, and after an uproar the boats were turned away by Belizean authorities. But Oceana has discovered that the fight to protect Belizeâ€™s waters from exploitation has just begun.
Other countries with larger fleets, namely Chinese Taipei and Spain â€“ Europeâ€™s largest and most aggressive fishing nation â€“ have already approached the government of Belize about moving into the deep waters beyond the Belize Barrier Reef.