The Belize government’s decision today to introduce critical legislation to establish a permanent moratorium on offshore oil activity in and around the Belize Barrier Reef has been welcomed by WWF, Oceana and other members of the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage as a landmark step forward for the World Heritage site and marine conservation globally.
The move to stop damaging oil exploration in Belize’s territorial sea and Exclusive Economic Zone, expected to be adopted in the country’s next parliamentary session in November 2017, marks an important first step toward protecting coastal and marine ecosystems worldwide and safeguarding the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere, a significant biodiversity hotspot.
“At a time when nature is under increasing pressure and being lost at an unprecedented and accelerating rate, we are beginning to realise its irreplaceable contribution to our own economy and welfare. The Belize government’s commitment to protect the Belize Barrier Reef sets an example for the kind of leadership we urgently need to protect our planet’s oceans and some of its most productive, outstanding - and yet, extremely vulnerable - places,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General, WWF International.
The Belize Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996, is home to almost 1,400 species and serves as a critical source of livelihood for over half of Belize’s population. In October 2016, a decision to allow seismic testing for oil barely one kilometre away from the site caused national and global outcry over concerns on the potential impact on the site and its unique ecosystems.
“Last year’s mobilization showed how we stand united in our determination to protect the reef - a source of life, tradition and pride for all of us in Belize. We are heartened by today’s decision which demonstrates the government’s commitment to protect our national treasure,” said Nadia Bood, Mesoamerican Reef Scientist at WWF. “We now need to continue our efforts, as decision-makers, civil society and individuals, to ensure the reef and its remarkable biodiversity is safeguarded for marine life and communities for years to come.”
“The catalyst for change has, and will always be, the will of the people. On the issue of offshore oil exploration in one of the world’s most unique marine environments, the unwavering engagement of Belizeans, the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage members and the global community has been the constant factor that has brought us to this point in our democracy, “ said Oceana’s Vice President in Belize, Janelle Chanona. “Once enacted, this legislation would signal Prime Minister Barrow’s administration’s recognition that the quality of our lives directly depends on the integrity of natural resources and that the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of Belizeans who depend on the reef are not disposable. This legislation will also make Belize a leader in protecting corals and safeguarding coastal and marine ecosystems—actions that will hopefully prompt similar actions around the world.”
A WWF assessment published in June this year showed the Belize Barrier Reef to be under threat from offshore oil drilling and damaging coastal construction. While the ban on offshore oil activity would be significant progress, urgent action to strengthen mangrove regulation and limit the sale of public land in the World Heritage site is also needed.
Reef-related tourism and fisheries support around 190,000 people in Belize. The annual economic contribution of reef-related tourism, fisheries and scientific research is estimated to be around 15 per cent of Belize’s gross domestic product (GDP).
For 30 years WWF has been working to conserve Belize’s unique biodiversity, tackling its greatest threats while improving the lives of vulnerable communities, as part of its integral scope in the Mesoamerican Reef System.
Like the Belize Barrier Reef, nearly half of natural World Heritage sites worldwide are threatened by industrial pressures, putting the livelihoods and well-being of communities who depend on them at risk and threatening their long-term viability. WWF’s campaign, Together Saving Our Shared Heritage, is working to strengthen the implementation of the World Heritage Convention and reinforce the OECD guidelines that protect these sites. To date, over 400,000 people have expressed their support for the protection of the Belize World Heritage site through the campaign.