Belmopan, Belize. The World Heritage Committee today formally adopted a decision to remove Belize from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Sites In Danger list. One of fewer than 50 such sites on the planet, Belize has been on the list for almost a decade due to three main areas of concern: offshore oil concessions, mangrove clearing and coastal tourism developments within the World Heritage Sites. In announcing its decision, the WHS Committee highlighted the legislated offshore oil moratorium and greater legal protections for mangroves as well as the national commitment to strengthen regulations to prevent unsustainable development and stop the sale of lands within the World Heritage Sites.
Belizeans, supported by civil society, pushed the Government of Belize to implement an indefinite moratorium on offshore oil activity through legislation, following the September 2016 approval of seismic testing in Belize's maritime territory. The Bill received rare bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, unanimous endorsement in Senate and officially became law in December 2017. The moratorium on offshore oil therefore eliminated one of the biggest overarching threats to the health of one of the most globally significant reefs on the planet.
Speaking at a World's Oceans Day event in early June, Belize's Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow highlighted Oceana’s role in achieving this globally significant law. "I quote Mahatma Gandhi, who famously said ‘If the people lead, the leaders will follow.’ It is in that context that I pay full tribute to Oceana in Belize’s mobilization of citizens to persuade and to push Government to go further, I immediately concede, than perhaps might have been our original contemplation. That multifaceted campaign included a particularly comprehensive and instructive effort at education, and it helped raise awareness in a way that, I think, has enshrined now a widespread public consciousness of the great value of our marine resources and the corresponding need to always nurture and protect same,” shared PM Barrow. “While the particular step with respect to banning offshore oil exploration in our country is extremely important, it is of course, just one step. Ocean conservation is an ongoing exercise necessitating the deployment of constant vigilance and a toolbox updated as required in view of the continuing challenges.”
According to Oceana’s Vice President for Belize, Janelle Chanona, the continued collaboration between the Government, civil society and an engaged public will guarantee even more significant progress and protections for the second longest barrier reef in the world. "Belize is now truly a global leader, not just in coral reef protection, but most importantly, of the people who depend on them," says Chanona. "And if we continue to make decisions that reflect the reality that our lives depend on daily on healthy coastal and marine resources, as a people, we can continue to rely on them for centuries to come."
Oceana also takes this opportunity to salute the leadership of the Government and people of Belize in regard to Belmopan’s recent decision to strengthen protections for mangroves, which play a critical role in climate change through carbon sequestration, shoreline protection during storms and hurricanes, and fisheries by serving as nurseries for biologically and economically important species. Those revised laws took effect on June 23rd. These new regulations are important given that the last active oil concession covered significant portions of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve and the Paynes Creek National Park, which are home to large tracts of mangroves as well as sea grass beds and reefs.
The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System (BBRRS), inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, is comprised of seven protected areas; 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. The largest reef complex in the Atlantic-Caribbean region, it represents the second largest reef system in the world. The seven protected areas that constitute the BBRRS comprise 12% of the entire Reef Complex.