Belize made history on Friday, October 20, 2017, by introducing legislation to enshrine an indefinite moratorium on offshore oil in its marine territory, including territorial seas and Exclusive Economic Zone.
iTravel Belize’s Amber Edwards and recently awarded Ocean Hero Madison Edwards, were on hand at the National Assembly as Belize Prime Minister Dean Barrow introduced the landmark legislation at the House of Representatives. The were excited to be part of history and such an important event. The Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage congratulated the Prime Minister and the Government of Belize as the legislation comes a year after seismic testing near the Belize Barrier Reef was stopped following public outcry.
Amber and Madison Edwards of iTravel Belize at the House of Representatives
The Coalition notes that this legislation, which would protect Belize’s entire maritime area, is an unprecedented step forward in safeguarding the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. The Belize Barrier Reef System is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, and a recognized UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996. It also serves as a critical source of livelihoods for over half of Belize’s population. However, since 2009, the site has languished on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger due to industrial threats and the absence of a solid regulatory framework to ensure the reef’s protection.
Given Belize’s economic dependence on its natural resources, particularly on globally significant marine assets such as the second longest barrier reef in the world, the legislative move to safeguard these invaluable environments from the inherent dangers of offshore oil is fundamental to the country’s future.
“If enacted, this bill will become ‘The People’s Law’ because it recognizes that Belizeans have remained steadfast in their opposition to offshore oil. The enduring participation of the public has meant that this issue has survived time as well as all the traditional divisive tactics,” shared Oceana’s Vice President for Belize, Janelle Chanona.
According to economic valuations conducted by the World Resources Institute in 2009, every year Belize’s coastal and marine ecosystems contribute more than a billion dollars to the national economy through just three goods and services: tourism, fisheries, and coastal and shoreline protection. In the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster in 2010, Belizeans learnt that their entire offshore area had been parceled out and sold as concessions to oil companies. After an attempt to trigger an official referendum by Oceana and the other members of the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage was derailed, in February 2012 some 30,000 citizens participated in the groups’ unofficial vote dubbed, “The People’s Referendum”. More than 96% of participants voted against offshore oil activity.
A legal challenge by Oceana and other members of the Belize Coalition in 2012 rendered all oil concessions null and void. In June 2015, the Government declared that a “policy based” moratorium was in place. But when seismic testing was secretly approved without an Environmental Impact Assessment in October 2016, public outcry once again reached a fevered pitch. The backlash led to the studies being immediately suspended on October 20th, 2016 and subsequently cancelled in January 2017. In August 2017, in response to calls to ensure transparency in the decision-making process regarding offshore oil activity, Belize’s Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow publicly committed to introducing legislation to enshrining an indefinite moratorium.
“Belizeans have stood up to be counted every time they need to on this issue. Continued vigilance and collective leadership will ensure both the stability and sustainability of Belize’s marine assets and therefore of the tens of thousands of Belizeans that depend on them daily,” maintains Chanona.
In terms of next steps, the public is invited to participate in the House Committee phase of the legislative process. The offshore oil moratorium bill has been referred to the Natural Resources House Committee, chaired by Minister of State Beverly Castillo. That committee is scheduled to meet at the National Assembly Building in the City of Belmopan on October 30th at 10:30am.
“The Belize Barrier Reef is both priceless and essential to Belize’s future,” a statement from the Coalition said. “We thank all Belizeans who have never wavered on this issue of national importance, and call on them to remain vigilant to ensure that the leaders of Belize continue to take steps toward meaningful and sustainable development to benefit our collective future.”