In the small Central American country of Belize, a spectacular stretch of the Northern Hemisphere’s longest coral barrier reef system is under threat from oil development. The Belizean government’s proposal to begin offshore oil drilling near the heart of the Belize Barrier Reef poses both long-term and short-term dangers to the underwater paradise the helps sustain Belize’s tourism industry.
In the short term, oil drilling would destroy sections of reef, while raising the specter of a catastrophic oil spill that could wipe out huge swaths of coral and the aquatic animals that depend on it. In the longer term, adding more oil to the international market would contribute to climate change that threatens coral reef systems everywhere.
It’s for these reasons conservationists in Belize have partnered with international environmental groups to stop offshore oil drilling from ever occurring in Belize waters. These groups want to see the question of whether to begin offshore drilling put on a national referendum, which would let the people of Belize decide the fate of what may be their greatest natural resource.
Part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the Belize Barrier Reef reaches for nearly 200 miles along the coast of Belize. It is home to around 500 recorded species of fish, dozens of spectacular coral species, and hundreds of other marine invertebrates. It also supports what may be the world’s largest population of West Indian manatees, as well as endangered hawksbill, loggerhead, and green sea turtles. In 1996 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) put the Belize Barrier Reef on the World Heritage Site list of places deemed to be of extraordinary global biological or cultural importance.
The reef is also important to the tourism industry, which is a mainstay of the Belize economy. The Belize Barrier Reef is the most popular tourism destination in the country, drawing thousands of scuba divers, snorkelers, and aquatic wildlife enthusiasts each year. The principle attraction of the reef is the diverse plant and animal life it supports, meaning any threat to the reef environment is also a threat to tourism. An offshore oil spill near the Belize Barrier Reef could be even more devastating to water-dependent businesses than last year’s horrendous spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
However despite significant public opposition, government officials have proposed beginning offshore oil drilling along the Belizean coast. Last year news surfaced that the government was giving concessions to oil companies interested in offshore oil exploration. This sparked a national outcry, as conservationists and tourist industry associations became concerned about potential devastation to the barrier reef environment. These groups came together to launch the Coalition to Ban Offshore Oil Drilling in Belize, with the goal of stopping offshore drilling proposals in their tracks.
More than one year later, the coalition has collected the 17,000 petition signatures it needs from Belize voters to trigger a referendum on the drilling ban. This ensures ordinary Belizeans will have a chance to vote on whether or not drilling occurs, and now coalition efforts are going into turning out pro-reef voters. Meanwhile the international conservation group Oceana has launched a petition to Belize’s prime minister in support of an offshore drilling ban, which residents of any country can sign online.
A ban on offshore oil drilling would protect the Belize Barrier Reef from an industry that could literally destroy it in the short term. At the same time the move would help reduce climate change by keeping oil firmly locked up underground. Over the long term climate change my pose an even worse threat to Belize’s reef than oil drilling, as rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification threaten the survival of the world’s coral reefs.
If the national electorate votes to ban offshore oil drilling, it will be a victory for conservationists that serves as an example of growing environmental awareness and activism in the developing world. It will also mean hope for one of the most spectacular aquatic ecosystems on the planet, and the hundreds of tourism jobs which the coral reef supports in Belize.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/jayhem/3168972954/