Q&A: Janelle Chanona on the People’s Referendum of Belize  | Oceana
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October 11, 2023

Q&A: Janelle Chanona on the People’s Referendum of Belize 


Janelle Chanona joined Oceana as its leader in Belize in 2014. The longtime Belize news anchor and Belmopan native previously ran her own media company and produced documentaries for environmental groups. A dedicated diver, she frequents Belize’s barrier reef and is determined to ensure that the reef, which all Belizeans love and depend on, is protected and made healthier than ever before. 

©Oceana / JC Cuellar

Growing up in Belize, what experiences shaped your passion for ocean conservation? 

Janelle Chanona: My twin and I grew up on the banks of the Sibun River, at the feet of the Sleeping Giant mountain range along the Hummingbird Highway. It’s even more picturesque than it sounds. We learned to swim while learning to walk. At Easter and during summer holidays, we visited relatives on offshore cayes [keys]. 

Our family turned all those experiences into outdoor classrooms. Our grandfather taught us that trees along the river protected our property from erosion during flooding. Our aunt described seeing crabs wedge themselves into coconut fronds ahead of big storms, a natural warning system. Our cousins helped to point out all the critters hiding in the seagrasses, highlighting the ecosystem’s key habitat role. In that context, you can see why asking questions and stewarding the environment comes naturally to us. And looking back at my professional career, I realize now that I’ve always been an advocate. 

Over the last decade, Belizeans have steadily opposed oil drilling in their country’s waters. Tell us about Oceana’s past victories against offshore oil exploration in Belize and how they were achieved. 

It’s fair to say that the inherent threats of offshore oil drilling really registered in Belize when we witnessed the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. From that point in April 2010 to achieving Belize’s legislated moratorium on offshore oil almost a decade later in December 2017, it was never lost on Belizeans that offshore oil exploration and exploitation is a dangerous and dirty industry that undermines the cultural and economic value of our fishing, tourism, and way of life. 

I’d like to tell you this very clear threat made the campaign “easy,” but it really wasn’t. We pulled out all the stops — science, legal, outreach, everything we could, to ensure Belizeans were empowered with the information they needed to make informed decisions on offshore oil. And to their credit, Belizeans never wavered on this issue. When it came time to stand up, they jumped! It was a sensational moment to witness and more importantly, it was impossible for leaders to ignore. The citizen-led reaction to offshore oil development — that people power — is why we proudly call the offshore oil moratorium ‘The People’s Law.’ 

Today Belize is up against the threat of offshore oil once more. What changed and what is at stake? 

Oil is an overarching threat. That means the Belize we know, love, and need is at stake. Our identity. Our livelihoods. It’s a bread and butter issue: everything is at stake. 

Our government leaders changed in November 2020 following national elections. We were very optimistic that the new administration would be interested in strengthening the moratorium. That political will would have been globally significant and we wanted to champion that kind of leadership. 

But in November 2022, the government told us they wanted to conduct seismic surveys and to lift the moratorium on offshore oil — and all without public notice, much less approval. Talk about having the wind taken out of your sails. The administration’s position subsequently shifted — the Prime Minister himself wrote as much in a letter to Oceana. 

But the scenario underscored the need for clarity and stability moving forward. That’s why we’ve worked to include a referendum mechanism in the offshore oil moratorium to ensure that any administration who wants to lift the moratorium must first go to the electorate for guidance. Such a major decision needs to be informed, collective, and transparent. 

What is Oceana doing to ensure that the people of Belize have their voices heard?  

Oceana is committed to sharing science, enhancing community outreach, and advocating for science-based policies and legislation that empower the people of Belize. We’re also amplifying the voices of Belizeans to national and international audiences, which is critical to making sure Belizeans’ agency is recognized and respected, and to counter the mis- and disinformation about the realities of offshore oil. 

Before you joined Oceana, you were a well-known television newscaster. What has your career taught you about building powerful connections with the public? 

I’m always learning. But one commonality I’ve found between journalism and advocacy is that everyone has a story and something to say, irrespective of age, background, and anything else some might use to create division. My role with Oceana has allowed me to maintain, enhance, and forge new connections with fellow Belizeans — including family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. We’re all interconnected. If we don’t speak up and stand beside each other, the bad actors “win.” We must care for one another. It’s as simple as that. 

Tell us about your experience leading this charge. What have you come up against, especially as a woman leader working alongside other talented women on your team? 

It’s hard to sugarcoat my response here: the patriarchy is real; misogyny is real. I do not think it’s lost on anyone that these types of ideologies undermine a robust democracy and effective policies at a time when everyone’s roles need to be strengthened. But it’s so inspiring to work alongside and to witness younger Belizeans refuse to let these harmful beliefs discourage them from responding to the call to leadership or even just to be honest about their feelings on social media. The next generation does not hold back! Because of them, I have every confidence the future will be more inclusive. 

In a few words, what inspires you to keep fighting? 

To borrow from John F. Kennedy: If not me, then who? If not now, when?