Will the Belize Barrier Reef be removed from UNESCO’s danger list?

The debate over offshore drilling in Belize has resurfaced, and the Ministry of Energy, Science and Technology and Public Utilities (MESTPU) issued a statement on Friday asserting that “none of [the] World Heritage Site properties [in Belize] are currently under any oil concession.”

It added that the Government of Belize will maintain the moratorium on the issuance of new offshore petroleum concessions until a comprehensive offshore petroleum policy is developed and accepted by the Government of Belize.

Meanwhile, Dr. Fanny Douvere, who heads the UNESCO World Heritage Center’s marine program, told journalists Friday that UNESCO has a number of critical concerns – among them are the sale and the leasing of lands within the property and especially the cutting of the mangroves.

As we reported last week, UNESCO had listed oil exploration as one of the main threats to the World Heritage Site – the Belize Barrier Reef System – and the site was listed back in 2009 as one of several such sites in danger.

“Management challenges and threats that impact on the integrity of the property include: overharvesting of marine resources, coastal development, tourism, industrial development and proposed oil and gas exploration and exploitation,” UNESCO says.

Douvere told 7 News that, “Our primary purpose is to work together with the Government and set a number of clear targets that would need to be achieved in order to get the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System back off the danger list.”

She did not specifically address the matter of petroleum concessions. Earlier in the week, vocal NGOs in Belize had expressed concerns over the draft zonation plan being circulated by the Government of Belize, which includes the Blue Hole and much of the expanse of the Belize Barrier Reef—the largest in the Western Hemisphere and the second largest in the world—in zones that could be included in oil exploration zones.

The Ministry notes, though, that back in 2013, it had “successfully negotiated with Princess Petroleum for a relinquishment of more than their 25% required under their contract in an effort to ensure that the Blue Hole and other areas of Lighthouse Reef Atoll are no longer part of their active concession.”

It also said that back in 2009, when the Belize Barrier Reef System was placed on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger, nine offshore concessions existed, but today, there are only three.

“Currently, Princess Petroleum remains the only company with a large offshore concession, while Providence Energy and BCH International have small off-shore acreages as part of their concessions…” the ministry’s release said.

“It is important to understand also that there are a lot of jobs created from the Belize Barrier Reef System which are crucially important for the country and the Belizean people. So what is challenging is to bring all those various perspectives together and to design a roadmap that works both from a socioeconomic perspective, but also from an environmental perspective,” Douvere underscored.

She said that the parties are trying to work collectively to understand the bottlenecks so that they can achieve a roadmap for moving forward.

“We are still in the middle of discussing with the government the actual feasible time frame, but we are not looking at another five years on the danger list,” she said, in an interview aired by News 5.

UNESCO says that, “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.”

(UNESCO’s posting on Belize can be found here: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/764)

Barrow tells UNESCO: no oil drilling in/near offshore reef protected areas

An official press release issued by the Government late this evening stated that, following his meeting with representatives of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, Prime Minister Dean Barrow has “expressed his willingness to chart a course forward on key management requirements for a sustainable future for the reef.”

The release said, “Prime Minister Barrow confirmed the Government’s policy position to prohibit oil exploitation within and adjacent to the protected areas in the Belize Barrier Reef System.”

The declaration by the Barrow administration comes after the January 19-23, 2015, mission by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre to Belize, in cooperation with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The parties, said the release, undertook a technical support mission to Belize with the objective of assisting the Government in its efforts to prepare a road map for the removal of the Belize Barrier Reef from the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

As we reported in a separate article in this edition of Amandala, the Belize Barrier Reef was placed on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger in 2009.

Among the issues over which UNESCO has expressed concern are the sale, lease and development of mangrove islands, as well as oil development within and immediately adjacent to Belize Barrier Reef.

“The 1972 World Heritage Convention is aimed at ensuring that the exceptional values for which these sites are listed endure through government transitions so future generations can continue to enjoy them the same [way] we do today,” the Government release explains.