Belize made history today by introducing legislation to enshrine an indefinite moratorium on offshore oil in its marine territory, including territorial seas and Exclusive Economic Zone. Given Belize’s economic dependence on its natural resources, particularly on globally significant marine assets such as the second longest barrier reef in the world, the legislative move to safeguard these invaluable environments from the inherent dangers of offshore oil is fundamental to the country’s future.
According to economic valuations conducted by the World Resources Institute in 2009, every year Belize’s coastal and marine ecosystems contribute more than a billion dollars to the national economy through just three goods and services: tourism, fisheries, and coastal and shoreline protection. In the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster in 2010, Belizeans learnt that their entire offshore area had been parceled out and sold as concessions to oil companies. After an attempt to trigger an official referendum by Oceana and the other members of the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage was derailed, in February 2012 some 30,000 citizens participated in the groups’ unofficial vote dubbed, “The People’s Referendum”. More than 96% of participants voted against offshore oil activity.
“If enacted, this bill will become ‘The People’s Law’ because it recognizes that Belizeans have remained steadfast in their opposition to offshore oil. The enduring participation of the public has meant that this issue has survived time as well as all the traditional divisive tactics,” shared Oceana’s Vice President for Belize, Janelle Chanona.
A legal challenge by Oceana and other members of the Belize Coalition in 2012 rendered all oil concessions null and void. In June 2015, the Government declared that a “policy based” moratorium was in place. But when seismic testing was secretly approved without an Environmental Impact Assessment in October 2017, public outcry once again reached a fevered pitch. The backlash led to the studies being immediately suspended on October 20th, 2016 and subsequently cancelled in January 2017. In August 2017, in response to calls to ensure transparency in the decision-making process regarding offshore oil activity, Belize’s Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow publicly committed to introducing legislation to enshrining an indefinite moratorium.
“The Belize Barrier Reef isn’t just irreplaceable, it’s vital to Belize’s future. We are heartened by the introduction of this legislation, which will help protect both wildlife and livelihoods. Coming just a year after oil testing near the reef was stopped due to a public outcry, it shows Belize’s government is listening to its people,” says WWF Reef Scientist and Climate Change Officer, Nadia Bood.
“Belizeans have stood up to be counted every time they need to on this issue. Continued vigilance and collective leadership will ensure both the stability and sustainability of Belize’s marine assets and therefore of the tens of thousands of Belizeans that depend on them daily,” maintains Chanona. The bill has been referred to Natural Resources House Committee chaired by Minister of State Beverly Castillo. According to the staff of the National Assembly, that committee will meet on October 30th 2017 at 10:30 in the City of Belmopan.
Referring to today’s proceedings, Oceana’s President Jim Simon asserted, “Belize is taking a significant step to protect its oceans by moving to legislate a moratorium on offshore oil activity. The leadership of the Government of the Rt. Honorable Prime Minister Barrow on this issue is sure to inspire other countries to follow Belize’s lead. And all this at a time when the importance of coral reefs and marine ecosystems in relation to climate change mitigation are in sharp focus.”
If enacted, the law will also help Belize remove itself from the Sites In Danger listing of the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO). The threat of offshore oil was just one of the factors that landed the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System on the list.
“The reef remains at risk,” maintains Bood. “We urge the government to continue this encouraging progress by introducing legislation to ban the sale of public lands in the World Heritage site and regulation to protect its mangroves. Both are still urgently needed to safeguard this unique site for marine life and future generations.”