Features — 23 April 2016 — by Adele Ramos
Getting the Belize Barrier Reef off the danger list

BELIZE CITY, Fri. Apr. 15, 2016–Twenty years ago, in 1996, the Belize Barrier Reef was inscribed on the list of World Heritage Sites when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized the world-famous site as “one of the most pristine reef ecosystems in the Western Hemisphere;” but for the past 7 years, it has been featured on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger, with the primary threats being offshore oil exploration and construction along the coast and on the cayes.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recently released a report dubbed, Protecting People through Nature Report 2016: A Report for WWF by Natural World Heritage Sites as Drivers of Sustainable Development, produced for WWF by Dalberg Global Development Advisors, which revealed that almost half of World Heritage Sites are “threatened, underscoring the fact that the problem is not just a local challenge—it is a global one”. Belize, though, can again prove itself to be a leader by tackling the problem head-on with decisive action.

According to the study, 114 natural and mixed World Heritage sites out of 229 either have oil, gas or mining concessions overlapping them or are under threat from at least one other harmful industrial activity. The WWF special report cited Belize as “a striking example.”

Amandala readers will recall that back in 2009, when the Belize Barrier Reef was put on the danger list, the entire marine space—including the majestic Blue Hole—was parceled out under petroleum concessions for oil exploration. However, there are other clear and present dangers to the reef. The WWF report added “unsustainable coastal construction, large-scale mangrove clearance, harmful agricultural run-off and the potential of dangerous oil exploration.”

“Conserving the environment does not hurt economic opportunities; it allows us to build sustainably on these irreplaceable assets,” said Roberto Troya, WWF’s Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Threats to World Heritage sites in places as diverse as Belize, Spain and Tanzania demonstrate how widespread the risks run and should unite us in our effort to protect these essential areas.”

The WWF report notes that, “More than 50 per cent of Belize’s population, or 190,000 people, are supported by incomes generated through tourism and fisheries. The annual economic contribution of reef-related tourism, fisheries and scientific research is estimated at around 15% of Belize’s gross domestic product (GDP).”

“Globally, more than eleven million people – greater than the population of Cuba – depend on World Heritage sites for food, water, shelter and medicine, and could be negatively affected by the impacts of harmful industrial activities conducted at large-scale,” the report also said.

Valentino Shal, advocacy lead for WWF in Belize, told Amandala that the WWF special report was compiled because they had observed that there are a lot of UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the danger list. There are both cultural and natural World Heritage Sites, and this study revealed that almost half across the globe is threatened.

In the case of Belize, Shal said, the two most important dangers are the threat of offshore drilling and unsustainable development along the coast and also on the cayes.

Shal noted that the Government of Belize had in the past issued oil concessions over entire marine spaces, including those areas included under the World Heritage Site listing. Although a partial ban has been announced, 86% of Belize’s marine space is still open for offshore drilling. Shal noted that any drilling you do anywhere will affect one or all of the sites.

“While Belize has a temporary moratorium on offshore drilling, this could be lifted at any time, leaving the remaining ocean area open to potential exploitation,” the special report said.

As Amandala reported last December, ahead of a deadline set by UNESCO, the Government imposed only a partial ban, listing 7 specific sites as off-limits to oil exploration: the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve and National Park, the Caye Caulker Marine Reserve and National Park, the natural monuments at Lighthouse Reef (The great Blue Hole and Half Moon Caye Natural Monuments included), the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, the Laughing Bird Caye National Park, the Glovers Reef Marine Reserve, and the Sapodilla Caye Marine Reserve.

In highlighting concerns over unsustainable development along the coast and cayes, driven by continued growth in tourism, Shal noted that there is a lot of dredging and sedimentation which affects the reef. A major concern is the loss of mangroves—which, the report says, has amounted to around 12,500 acres, or over 6,500 football fields, to date. Since 1998, 40 percent of the reef has been damaged by harmful activities, the WWF says.

In an effort to help reverse this trend, WWF in Belize has embarked on a nationwide campaign, aimed at helping to get the Belize Barrier Reef off the danger list.

“We have already met with some representatives of the Government and we will take this report back to them,” Shal said, adding that among the practical steps that they will advocate for is a complete ban on offshore drilling.

“It makes no sense to risk all of what we have out there for something that we don’t really know if it exists,” Shal said.

The WWF also stresses the need for tourism to be put on a more sustainable footing.

“We can’t grow that sector and in the process undermine those marine resources that actually allow us to have a tourism industry,” Shal said.

So apart from a ban on offshore drilling, they will also advocate for sustainable tourism legislation to give legal backing to the sustainable tourism master-plan, which has already been created.

“The Belize government (February) endorsed a management plan for coastal and marine areas BUT it is essential that plan is well resourced and fully implemented in 2016 to protect fragile coral reefs, mangrove forests and other ecosystems,” the WWF report urged.

The WWF’s report pointed to mega-tourism ventures such as Puerto Azul, which is still in the pipeline. It notes that the proposed Puerto Azul mega-resort includes a Formula 1-style racetrack and an airport, which would be built on sand dredged from the surrounding waters.

“Puerto Azul is on our radar,” said Shal, adding that there are a few more tourism projects that they will be looking at very closely. The WWF report said “unsustainable mega-resort construction in Pelican Cayes has resulted in the deforestation of 60 per cent of its mangroves. Similarly, the construction of a large cruise ship terminal at Harvest Caye has resulted in damage to nearby coral reefs due to the dredging and dumping of rocks. The damage to the reef has been exacerbated by pollution from agricultural run-off, which causes nutrient overloading in the water.”

Apart from engaging the Government, WWF has also been working with partner NGOs with similar interests, such as OCEANA in Belize, the Belize Audubon Society, Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO), Southern Environmental Association (SEA), and the Healthy Reef Initiative in Belize.

“We want it to be a collective effort by local partners—not exclusively a WWF thing,” Shal said.

The WWF has also created a platform for public engagement, and its social media campaign uses the hash tag, #makeyourmark. They have also set up a website at https://makeyourmark.panda.org/belize, where members of the public can make their voices heard on this very important matter through sending a petition letter to the Prime Minister.

As of Friday morning, more than 20,000 letters had been sent asking Prime Minister Barrow to “…secure the long-term protection of Belize’s reef as a positive legacy of your leadership for Belizeans and the world,” and adds that “Drilling for oil anywhere in Belize’s waters would put the reef at risk, and should be banned.”

Shal said that they are also sending text blasts via BTL to get the word out, urging that “we need to protect the reef” and asking Belizeans to be “champions of the reef” by visiting the “make your mark” page and sending an easy electronic petition to the PM.

He told Amandala that the efforts in Belize are part of a global campaign to help restore the status of World Heritage Sites in danger.

Of note is that Belize has been a central focus in international press reports featuring the WWF’s special report; and Shal agreed that Belize’s prominence is due to the fame of the Belize Barrier Reef – the largest in the Western Hemisphere. The WWF report cites Belize as “a striking example.”

Although it is unlikely that the site will be removed soon from the danger list, they are willing to work with the Government to help expedite things. A complete ban on offshore drilling won’t be enough. Shal noted that UNESCO has a list of things that the Government needs to comply with, including addressing the sale of land in protected areas.

CALL TO ACTION

The WWF appeals both to the Government and the private sector for action.

“WWF is asking the private sector to make no go commitments to refrain from activities that threaten to degrade World Heritage sites. Financing should also be withheld from projects involving harmful industrial activities in World Heritage sites or the companies conducting them,” the report said.

It added that, “National governments should ensure that no harmful industrial activities are permitted in World Heritage sites or in areas that could negatively affect them. Governments should hold multinational enterprises headquartered or operating in their territories to the highest standards of corporate accountability and stewardship.”

Below are further proposed actions identified by the report-:

Companies and financial institutions should:

•NOT conduct or fund activities that threaten World Heritage sites.
•Conduct responsible business when planning activities.
•Refrain from harmful operations that degrade value.

Governments should:

•Prioritize sustainable development that protects nature for the benefit of people.
•Not exploit irreplaceable sites for short-term financial gains.
•Respect the status of these places: don’t grant concessions for exploration of oil, gas or minerals, or large-scale industrial projects.
•Stop harmful industrial activities (oil, gas and minerals extraction) and replace with low-impact sustainable development options.
•Include ecosystem and biodiversity values into national and local planning.
•Consider World Heritage sites as key part of achieving the global SDGs.

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