Belize Barrier Reef under UNESCO’s microscope

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 19, No. 13            April 2, 2009

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“The Government of Belize and its people have committed themselves to protect this World Heritage Site before the International Community.” - Marc Patry, UNESCO’s Representative.

On December 4th, 1996, the Belize Barrier Reef was inscribed as one of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites. Since then the Government of Belize (GOB) has invested time, money and efforts to protect the world’s second largest barrier reef. But even with all the international focus and prestige that comes with such recognition, along with the investments and efforts made by the GOB and international organizations, there are indications that there some areas of concern within our reef system. Evidence of detrimental human impact within at least two of the sites in the Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage Site has raised serious questions from the World Heritage Committee. The two sites are the South Water Caye Marine Reserve and the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve.

    Last week, two of UNESCO’s officials Mark Fuller and Marc Patry visited Belize to speak with government officials, stakeholders, attended public meetings and inspect the Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage Site. UNESCO World Heritage Center Programme Specialist Marc Patry told The San Pedro Sun in an exclusive interview that at least two of the seven systems that are included in the Heritage Site are under scrutiny, which means that Belize will be placed on “Red Flag” status and can possibly be on the Danger List as early as June. “We have been hearing some disturbing stories about some developments taking place that are against the rules and other things are happening leading to the destruction of this site,” explained Patry adding that, “we are here to get to the bottom of this, to see what is happening, why and how serious of a problem this is and what can be done to stop it.”

    Two years ago investors began clearing mangroves and dredging in Pelican Cayes, a chain of islands located within the South Water Caye Marine Reserve which is one of the seven sites that forms the Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage Site. Such development caused alarm within the UNESCO World Heritage Committee and according to Patry, it simply needs to stop. “Our visit was triggered by the cutting of mangroves, dredging of the sea bed and coral along, with the filling of mangrove land in the Pelican Cayes area. When it was brought up to the World Heritage Committee and they saw it, they decided that UNESCO must go and take a look,” stated Patry adding that upon reaching Belize, the problem was bigger, “but when we got here we found other things happening within other areas that are equally disturbing such as the fail selling of land in the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve and other huge investment near the reef.”

    The World Heritage Committee meets annually and this year they are schedule to meet in Spain in June. According to Patry, one of the possibilities is that Belize Barrier Reef will be placed on the Danger list. “One of the proposals might be is to put the site on the list of World Heritage in Danger. We are red flagging this site. That means that we are saying that there is a problem on this site and it needs focused attention by the national authorities and perhaps submit to international support in trying to deal with the problems,” explained Patry.

    During the consultation meeting with stakeholders at the San Pedro Lions Den on Thursday March 26th, residents asked the UNESCO representatives to include in their recommendation to the GOB a plan to activate a proper management committee for all seven reserves with the Heritage Site. In addition they also recommended that UNESCO pressure the GOB to remove any clause within the Laws of Belize that gives the Minister rights to de-reserve lands and to activate regular stakeholders meetings.

    When the World Heritage Committee meets in June, Belize will also be submitted with a number of recommendations. “Our recommendation will be along the line that we (UNESCO) want to see a system that works well, that is transparent and effective so that the decision making is not a mystery, that there is not a black box coming out of a decision. The sale of land in Bacalar Chico needs to stop so government will have to look at ways to reverse these actions,” ended Patry.

    According to both Armid Thompson and Melanie McField of the Healthy Reef for Healthy People Initiative, during the Year of the Reef Gala in November, Prime Minister of Belize pledged GOB support in doing all within GOB power to protect the reef. Thompson and McField told The Sun that to date there has been no action on GOB’s behalf to show any new movement forward.

    Thompson announced during the public meeting that Healthy Reef for Healthy People is working to include the Parrot Fish as Belize’s National Fish in an effort to strengthen its protection. There is also growing interest in applying to UNESCO to include Hol Chan into the Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage Site, but it would take two years before such an application would be entertained.

    The Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage Site is one of UNESCO’s 199 Natural Heritage Site. Twenty one counties make up the World Heritage Committee including a representative from each region.
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