Much of Belize’s 400-kilometre coastline is fringed with atolls, cayes and blue holes, which together make up the largest barrier reef in the world outside of Australia. To protect them, the Belizean government has announced a landmark ban on exploring and extracting offshore oil.
The decision comes in response to decades of environmental campaigning . After the 2013 Deepsea Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, such campaigns resulted in a temporary suspension of exploration by the Belize Supreme Court. When the ban ended, however, the Belizean government drafted new guidelines leaving most of the coast available for development. The new ban offers a total end to exploration – good news for the estimated 50 per cent of the population who rely on the reef for fisheries and tourism.
Belize is a developing country and oil is among its top exports. However, the economic benefits of maintaining the reef for a £165million reef tourism industry was seen as a higher concern. The nation joins other Central American countries that have prioritised environmental issues and tourism benefits over resource development. In 2014, Costa Rica announced a nationwide ban on oil extraction, while in 2017 El Salvador banned precious metal mining to protect water resources.
While the decision is seen as a triumph of environmentalism, some scientists are sceptical about the benefit to corals. John Bruno, marine biologist and at the University of North Carolina and expert on the Belize reefs emphasises the danger of coral bleaching from warming waters and ocean acidification. He tells Geographical ‘the irony is that oil drilling (and burning) thousands of miles away is the far greater problem.’
This was published in the March 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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