December 14, 2015
CEO Note: Belize Announces Protections for Barrier Reef and World Heritage Sites from Oil Exploration
BY: Andy Sharpless
The Government of Belize has announced its intention to impose a permanent ban on offshore oil exploration along the Belizean barrier reef system and within the country’s seven world heritage sites. The Belizean barrier reef is the largest section of the MesoAmerican barrier reef, the biggest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and home to some of the most biologically diverse marine ecosystems on the planet. The government’s announcement is a big step forward for the people of Belize, Oceana and ocean advocates everywhere.
Oceana’s Belizean team has been campaigning to ban offshore oil drilling in Belize’s ocean since we and our allies discovered in 2010 that massive oil exploration concessions had been granted throughout Belizean waters – including in its marine reserves, natural monuments and national parks. Having seen the devastating effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, however, Belizeans knew that even one accident could destroy this fragile marine ecosystem. Belize’s oceans provide jobs, food and cultural identity for its citizens, making protection of these areas a top priority.
Our staff in Belize has stood and will continue to stand with Belizeans as they demand protections for their reef. Oceana, along with other Belizean organizations, successfully won judgments from Belizean courts that the permits issued by the government that allowed drilling violated Belizean environmental law. This judgment led to an initial moratorium on offshore drilling. In addition, working with other organizations in the country, Oceana’s team founded the Belize Coalition to Save Our National Heritage in December 2011. This coalition, which began with seven member organizations and grew to include 40 different groups, ultimately delivered more than 18,000 signatures to the Governor General’s office calling for a referendum on offshore oil drilling and exploration. When just enough signatures were disqualified to prevent triggering an official referendum, the Coalition organized a national referendum of its own called “The People’s Referendum.” This initiative gave Belizeans an opportunity to vote on the issue, and they responded overwhelmingly. Approximately 30,000 Belizeans participated – with more than 95% voting against offshore oil activity.
Protecting Belize’s reef is important for Belize’s economy as Belize’s beautiful waters and reefs are the lifeblood of Belize’s tourism sector, the single largest industry in the country and its main earner of foreign currency.
Moving forward, Oceana will campaign to effectively protect all of Belize’s reef and ocean from offshore drilling. We will work to make certain that the Belize government follows through on establishing permanent environmental safeguards against offshore oil drilling. We will also campaign to ensure the moratorium on offshore drilling currently in place could be lifted only based on eight specified conditions, including a public referendum in favor of doing so.
For today, though, we applaud the people of Belize for their efforts and commend the government for announcing its intention to protect this invaluable part of Belize’s and the world’s seas.
For the oceans,
Chief Executive Officer