No offshore oil exploration will be permitted along the Belize Barrier Reef or within the country’s seven World Heritage Site areas, the government of Belize announced this month. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee and national environmental groups applauded the announcement as a step in the right direction.
At a December 1 meeting, the Belizean Cabinet approved a policy that legally bans offshore exploration in what amounts to 15 percent of the country’s marine territory. The measure protects 1,316 square miles along the Central American country’s section of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the second longest in the world. A moratorium on all offshore drilling remains in place.
According to the new policy, offshore oil exploration is banned within one kilometer on either side of the Belize Barrier Reef System, and within the seven protected reef areas that comprise the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s List of World Heritage in Danger since 2009 due to the sale, lease, and development of mangrove islands and the lack of a solid regulatory framework for the site’s conservation. Offshore oil activity was added to the list of concerns in 2010.
“The World Heritage Committee has taken a very clear position that oil and mining exploration and exploitation are incompatible with World Heritage status,” the committee wrote in a statement responding to the government announcement. “The decision is a major first step forward in the government’s efforts to remove Belize Barrier Reef from the List of World Heritage in Danger.”
The World Heritage Site — comprised of Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, Blue Hole Natural Monument, Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, South Water Caye Marine Reserve, Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, Laughing Bird Caye National Park, and Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve — contains a unique array of reef types, and hundreds of sand and mangrove cayes. It provides important habitat for threatened species, such as the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), green turtle (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), and American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus).
“Cabinet further agreed that areas that fall outside of the large acreages banned, would not automatically allow for seismic activities and exploration drilling without conducting the existing stringent environmental studies to determine critical habitats and sensitive zones,” a statement issued by the Belize Press Office on December 1 asserted.
The Belizean government has come under fire in the past for granting offshore exploration concessions to oil companies without first requiring environmental impact assessments. In 2013 the country’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Oceana and other non-governmental groups that had filed suit against the government for failing to assess the environmental impact of offshore contracts. The ruling rendered six existing offshore concessions issued in 2004 and 2007 null and void.
No offshore contracts have been awarded since the ruling, and reports earlier this year that the government intended to open up iconic marine protected areas to offshore drilling met with widespread opposition.
Environmental groups in Belize welcomed the government’s announcement of the new ban on offshore exploration.
“The Association of Protected Areas Management Organizations, APAMO, applauds the decision by Cabinet demonstrating government’s resolve to ensuring the continued protection of the Belize Barrier Reef System and in particular the World Heritage Site,” APAMO declared in a statement. Five of the association’s 13 non-governmental members have co-management responsibilities over marine protected areas.
Not all marine protected areas are covered by the ban, however. For example, the Port Honduras Marine Reserve and Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve are both significant, large marine reserves that are not covered.
But the new policy does not entirely remove the threat to the country’s reef system. Should the existing moratorium be lifted, “any oil spill within Belize’s waters would have a devastating effect on the reef, including the Barrier Reef System World Heritage site,” the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) noted in a response to the government’s announcement.
Environmental organizations have campaigned against offshore drilling in Belize for years. News that offshore concessions included the Great Blue Hole atoll and other iconic marine protected areas galvanized many Belizeans, prompting environmental, tourism-industry, and other groups to form the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage. The coalition advocates for a full ban on oil and gas activity in all offshore waters as well as in mainland protected areas, and participated in the suit that led to the nullification of existing concessions in 2013.
Prior to the success of their legal challenge, the coalition and Oceana Belize organized a “People’s Referendum” initiative in 2012 with dozens of polling stations throughout the country. Ninety-six percent of the nearly 30,000 people who participated — almost one-tenth of the country’s population of 350,000 — opposed offshore drilling.
Oceana Belize and other groups continue to monitor the issue closely, but view the new ban as an important step.
“This progress should be seen as a major accomplishment by and for the people of Belize,” said Janelle Chanona, head of Oceana Belize, in a statement responding to the government’s decision.
“We remain confident that the future will continue to reveal reasons why Belizeans should never risk our outstanding and globally unique resources with this type of activity,” the statement reads.