UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has added Belize’s Barrier Reef System to its “List of World Heritage Sites in Danger” and says that GOB must show that it is serious about preserving the site by February 1, 2011, or risk losing “World Heritage Site” status.
Oil exploration is nine areas highlighted by UNESCO, which GOB needs to address.
In relation to offshore drilling, which has been a controversial topic since earlier this year, the Committee expressed “its serious concern about oil concessions reportedly granted within the marine area of the property, [and] notes that any decision to go forward with oil exploration would be incompatible with World Heritage status.”
Deeming such actions as not reflective of the Reef’s prized status as a World Heritage property, the committee urged the government to enact legislation to “prohibit oil exploration within the Belize Barrier Reef System. “The committee considers such legislation necessary, because the oil exploration concessions which have been granted in the area indicate that the legal framework to protects the reef is weak and insufficient.
The committee also set a deadline for GOB to enact the necessary legal reform and other corrective measures; GOB has 10 ten weeks to comply and “provide evidence of actions taken.
UNESCO is expecting to see government reverse its policy on oil wildcatting in offshore areas.
The Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage has been fighting against offshore oil exploration since June this year and welcomed the UNESCO’s position as a powerful reaffirmation of their position.
“The Belize Coalition.... calls on the Government of Belize to ban oil exploration and exploitation in all protected areas and offshore to protect the livelihoods of our people, the integrity of our natural environment... and the international recognition given to our natural heritage, the Belize Barrier Reef,” the Coalition reiterated on Monday, November 29.
Oil exploration isn’t the only reason behind the committee’s strong opposition. The committee is also concerned about the lack of adequate laws to prohibit the selling and leasing of lands throughout the property. The committee also expressed concern about mangrove cutting, dredging and other real estate development activities.
GOB responded that it had made some corrective strides to comply with UNESCO’s advisory and reported these measures to the committee in February of this year.
The committee was not appeased as it said these steps were not a permanent solution, and said it was expecting a “guarantee of the permanent cessation” of all developmental activities, which are already threatening the reef. It said there remain areas in which government’s response has been not bee adequate.
“The 2009 mission report indicated that a significant amount of development had already occurred by the time of inscription , and even more has occurred since inscription, so much so that the Outstanding Value of the property may currently be at risk from existing development alone.”
The committee had also expressed concern over the size of Belize’s no-take zone.
It is common knowledge that the reef and the fish that live within it have a symbiotic relationship; therefore, the decreasing number of fish such as the Nassau Grouper and the “near disappearance” of the smalltooth sawfish, poses additional problems to the already weakened state of the reef,” the WHC stated.
Therefore, the WHC calls on the GOB to enlarge the no-take zone so as to include a broader protective spectrum of fish that are unmistakably instrumental in the life of the reef.
The list of corrective measures covers a wide range of matters that have either direct or indirect impact on the reef system. The committee said GOB needs to make the information on land ownership in the area publicly available. It also needs to identify the proper methodologies to be employed in the selection and introduction of new species into the reef.
Minister of Tourism, Manuel Heredia Jr. responded by affirming his government’s desire to protect the reef’s status, “We have been working, I think we have met with the people several times, assuring them that as a responsible government we will continue to make sure that we do the right things not to damage or affect our reef.”