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Belize Drops Proposal for Offshore Oil Drilling on World’s Second Largest Barrier Reef

The Great Mayan Reef wowed Darwin and Cousteau, and was under threat of oil drilling by Belize's government. A civil movement to stop the plan forced Belize to drop its appeals aimed at opening offshore drilling.
June 10, 2015, 2:10pm
Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz/VICE News

Environmental activists in Belize have claimed victory in their fight against possible oil drilling near the world's second largest barrier reef, just 300 meters off the coast of the tiny Central American nation.

The government of Belize withdrew an appeal on May 26 attempting to overturn a Supreme Court ruling that had banned offshore oil drilling around the country's barrier reef, called the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (MBRS). The reef is also popularly known as the Great Mayan Reef or Great Maya Reef among international tourists and locals.

In April 2013, the Supreme Court of Belize ruled that six offshore oil drilling contracts, issued by the government between 2005 and 2007, were illegal because they had not carried out environmental impact assessments.

The court's ruling judge, Justice Oswell Legall, also found that the recipients of these contracts — including companies Island Oil, Princess Petroleum, and four others — did not demonstrate an ability to contribute the necessary funds, equipment, and technical expertise to drill safely.

Following the 2013 decision, the government of Belize filed an appeal. If the ruling was overturned, these same companies would have legally had access to offshore oil exploration and drilling in 99 percent of Belize's waters.

"We've been in limbo for about two years," Janelle Chanona, vice president of environmental group Oceana Belize, told VICE News. "It's such a point of pride for every Belizean to say we have this amazing resource. If we don't have that anymore, it's the soul of Belize we're losing."

'The only jobs Belizeans can look forward to in the offshore oil industry is on a clean-up crew.'

Oceana has been at the forefront of the fight to protect the Earth's second largest barrier reef — the largest in the Northern and Western Hemispheres — that is located along the coast of Belize.

UNESCO has dubbed the reef a World Heritage Site for its diversity of coral and wildlife, as well as being the home to several endangered species such as the West Indian manatee, the American crocodile, and three species of sea turtle.

Related: Belize's Island Paradise Is Caught Up in a Bloods Vs Crips Floating Drug War

Image via Flickr.

However, perhaps nothing has become more recognizable in Belize than the Great Blue Hole, which has reached legendary scuba diving status after being marveled at by both Charles Darwin and Jacques Cousteau. The circular hole is over 300 meters across, and 125 meters deep, making it the largest formation of its kind.

In 2013, the Great Blue Hole was ranked by The Discovery Channel as No. 1 on its list of the Ten Most Amazing Places on Earth. Drilling would have been allowed in its immediate vicinity.

In 2012, Oceana obtained roughly 20,000 signatures — 5,000 more than needed — to force the Belizean government to have a national referendum on offshore drilling. The government disqualified more than 8,000 signees, claiming that they did not match accurately enough the signatures on the voter's cards.

In response, Oceana organized what was called 'the people's referendum', and 15% of the Belizean population showed up for the non-binding vote. A staggering 96 percent voted against offshore drilling.

"There is the inevitability of a spill and the effects on Belize would be staggering; the loss of life, loss of habitat, the loss of the tourism industry," Chanona said, referring to the recent five year anniversary of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and the on-going cleanup effort after last month's spill in Santa Barbara County, California.

Belize's crystal clear waters are more than beautiful, they also support the country.

The World Travel and Tourism Council 2014 Belizean Report said that 39.2 percent of the country's GDP comes from tourism, and that 35.3 percent of the population are employed in this industry. Other researchers claim that 60 percent of tourists participate in marine activities during their visits to Belize, and that the value of protection related to coral reefs and mangroves in Belize was worth $289 million annually.

Across the country, Belizeans took part in a peaceful protest in May called Hands Across the Sand, where citizens held hands to demonstrate their commitment to stopping offshore drilling. Less than two weeks after the demonstration, the government withdrew its appeal.

"The only jobs Belizeans can look forward to in the offshore oil industry is on a clean-up crew," Chanona told VICE News.

Related: Five Years After BP Disaster, Gulf of Mexico's Fishing Industry Continues to Struggle

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter @ngjanowitz.