Belize prohibits oil drilling in its oceans

In late December, Belize’s Prime Minister Dean Barrow announced an indefinite prohibition of oil drilling in the Caribbean country’s oceans.

Belize’s barrier reef, the Mesoamerican Reef, is a world heritage site and one of the largest reefs in the world. This 560-mile-long ocean ecosystem supports 1,400 animal species, including manatees, rays, hawksbill turtles and numerous species of sharks. 186 of those miles are within Belize’s territory and now have increased protection through the new ban.

“The decision is hugely significant,” said Chris Gee, head of campaigns at World Wildlife Fund UK, to The Guardian. “It indicates that Belize, a developing country, is prepared to put its people and environment first.”

Putting the environment first has in part meant not drilling near the country’s borders. Supporters of the country’s ecosystem were concerned that an oil spill could cause significant harm to the reef and extend into waters all over Central America.

“I think that halting offshore drilling is a great step because one spill could wreak so much havoc,” said Gerry Kingsley, conservation chair of the Central Piedmont Sierra Club. “And it’s not a matter of whether there’s an ability to spill, but when. The only way to prevent … (oil spills) is not to drill in the first place.”

An oil spill can cause significant damage to the area reliant on the reef.

“The reef is critical not only for the tourism industry, which employs one in every four Belizeans, but also serves as a barrier against storm surge and beach erosion, which will only increase with climate change,” said Dana Krauskopf, owner of Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort south of Belize City, to The Guardian.

More than just a storm barrier and source of revenue, the reefs are an important source of life.

“I don’t want to come across as alarmist, but they are the basis of the entire ocean’s food chain,” said Kingsley. “If they go, so goes the entire food chain.”

Keeping the reefs from disappearing requires examination of oil use.

“I think any time we start to acknowledge the negative externalities of our reliance on fossil fuels, it’s a good thing. We’re bad at doing that,” said Professor of Geology Dave Dobson. “It can be hard when the damage is slow but ongoing or rare and intense, or hard to see, as it can be in offshore settings. In the case of Belize, they’re putting a valued (tourism) industry ahead of a less valuable (oil) one, which is good. But it might be better if we more frequently valued environmental protection for its own sake.”

Several members of the Guilford community hold similar views.

“Unless … (oil companies) can find a way to drill without doing damage, they shouldn’t do it,” said first-year Lucas Collazo.

Many in Belize have been working for years to stop the drilling. The Huffington Post reported that in 2012 Belizeans made an unsuccessful attempt to petition for a referendum on a previous year’s decision on drilling. The Belize government rejected 8,000 citizen signatures on a petition of 20,000, which terminated the vote. This action resulted in public backlash.

It is unclear if this outcry against drilling directly led to the ban, but advocates find the chain of actions to be encouraging for future efforts.

“A lot of people just throw their hands up and say, ‘what can I do?’” said Kingsley. “Well, you can contact your representatives. It’s so easy.”

Kingsley said this action, like the actions of Belizeans, could have impacts all over the world.

“It’s encouraging to know that yes, our voices do make a difference.”

One key to encouraging people to take action could be sharing news on Belize’s ban. Several Guilford students have been happy to hear about the development.

“It sounds helpful to the environment,” said Collazo. “We have got to protect the Earth.”

A potential way to protect the Earth is simply to spread awareness on environmental issues.

“As a concerned citizen and advocate, I think one of the direct actions we can take is to disseminate this kind of information,” said Kingsley. “How can we use this news about Belize to say ‘well, they’re doing it down in Belize, why can’t we do it here?’”