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05 January 2018

Belize becomes a world leader in ocean protection by ending oil activity in its waters

  • Belize’s Barrier Reef World Heritage site has been at risk of irreversible damage, but new laws bring hope it could be removed from UNESCO’s World Heritage in danger list
  • Tourism brings in around US$182 to $237m a year, so the health of the reef - Belize’s biggest attraction - is vital to the country’s future
  • WWF welcomes the move, after spearheading the largest international campaign for Belize in which 450,000 people took action, but says more needs to be done

Belize, home of the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere, has become a world leader in ocean sustainability, following the Government’s introduction of legislation to end oil activities in its waters.

The adoption of an indefinite moratorium marks the first time that a developing country has taken such a major step to protect its oceans from oil exploration and extraction, and places Belize in a tiny minority of countries with similar laws.

The legislation was signed into law on 29th December, and follows the introduction of a moratorium in August, which paused all oil activities in Belize’s waters after global pressure to preserve the World Heritage site reef. This huge step by the Belize Prime Minister, Dean Barrow, comes a year after international outcry by WWF, partner organisations and supporters led to the suspension of seismic oil exploration close to the fragile Barrier Reef World Heritage site.

Nadia Bood, Mesoamerican Reef Scientist at WWF in Belize said:

“Belize is a small country making a mighty commitment to putting the environment first. The new legislation doesn’t just prevent drilling within and around the World Heritage site reef, but in all of the country’s waters, which is a ground-breaking move for a country with a struggling economy. This is a huge step forward from authorizing - and then suspending - seismic testing for oil close to the World Heritage site just a year ago.”

Home to almost 1,400 species, including the endangered hawksbill turtle, manatees and six threatened species of shark, the Belize Barrier Reef has languished on the List of World Heritage in Danger since 2009. This new legislation is a major step in protecting the site that will bring it closer to being removed from the In Danger List when the UNESCO World Heritage Committee makes their recommendations next June 2018.

Belize’s economy depends on tourism, so the health of the reef is critical to the country’s future. Tourism alone is estimated to bring in between US$182 to 237 million a year(1), with reef-related tourism and fisheries supporting half of the Commonwealth member’s population (about 190,000 people).

Chris Gee WWF-UK’s #SaveOurHeritage Lead campaigner added:

“We’re delighted that Belize has recognised the importance of preserving the Barrier Reef by removing some of the major risks that threaten its future. The site is the jewel in Belize’s crown, and vital to the country’s future prosperity. Properly managed the World Heritage site will benefit people for generations to come.

“With the Belize Government on the path to building a sustainable future, they need to use this momentum to put in place the further legislation that’s required to protect its marine areas.

“Ending oil activities will encourage other countries to follow suit and take the urgent action that is needed to protect our planet’s oceans. Like the Belize Barrier Reef, nearly half of natural World Heritage sites worldwide are threatened by industrial pressures, if we don’t put an end to this, their unique wildlife and landscapes could be damaged forever.”

While the law regarding offshore oil activity will be significant progress, urgent action is still needed to strengthen mangrove regulation and limit the sale of public land in the World Heritage site.

In 2016 WWF was part of a coalition that successfully campaigned against seismic testing close to the reef. WWF’s campaign to put an end to oil exploration and other harmful activities in the World Heritage site has gained support from 450,000 people from around the world.


Notes to Editors:

(1) Source Protecting People Through Nature

Relevant reports and information:

  1. The report Too Precious to Drill: The Marine Biodiversity of Belize outlining why Belize’s marine environment needs to be protected from oil activities can be found here.
  2. A WWF assessment published in June this year showed the Belize Barrier Reef to be under threat from offshore oil drilling and damaging coastal construction.
  3. A 2016 report published by WWF details the issues faced by natural World Heritage sites and how safeguarding these areas of outstanding universal value can drive sustainable development.
  4. In 2015 WWF, Aviva Investors and Investec Asset Management published a report showing that almost a third of world heritage sites listed for their natural value were under threat of oil, gas and mining exploration.
  5. In June 2017 WWF published a report - How banks can safeguard our world heritage - which examines
  6. In April 2016 WWF launched a campaign, Together, Saving Our Shared Heritage, which aims to safeguard natural World Heritage sites. Over 1.5 million people have taken advocacy actions to political and business leaders including the leaders of Belize, Bulgaria, Spain, Mexico and Tanzania: