Threat of Oil Drilling Looms Over World’s 2nd Largest Barrier Reef

Belize’s barrier reef as seen from space. | Source: International Space Station

It has been less than a year since the second largest barrier reef in the world, located off the coast of Belize, was targeted by the Belizean Government as a site for oil drilling. The citizens of Belize, led by the non-profit organization Oceana, rose up in a historic protest against the seismic testing going on in their waters and convinced the government to temporarily halt oil exploration.

This reprieve removed any immediate threat to the reef’s wildlife, but nine months later little has changed. “There is still no legislation about banning testing,” Janelle Chanona, Vice President of Oceana Belize, told NATURE in an interview over Skype. Chanona has lead the charge on the drilling issue since the beginning and has rallied the people of Belize to fight for their shared natural resources. “There’s a frustration in the public because they’ve been supportive of anti-drilling legislation for so long. There was a natural outcry to do better. The public pressure is very real.”

It’s estimated that 60 percent of the country’s citizens owe their livelihoods to the reef in some way, either through sustainable fishing or tourism. However, neither the fisheries department nor the Belize Tourism Board have made official statements one way or another concerning drilling in the reef.

The potential costs of lost tourism could be disastrous to the small country. Mexico recently banned offshore oil activity in the Yucatan, the peninsula which directly borders Belize to the north. Chanona is certain that if Belize chooses to drill, tourists will take their money to the clean waters of Mexico, Costa Rica, and other countries of the Caribbean Sea.

From the office of the Prime Minister to the Fisheries Department and Petroleum Department, collective government agencies have not been forthcoming about future oil activity on the coast. NATURE reached out to representatives from each, as well as the Belize Tourism Board, and did not receive a response.

The Belize Barrier Reef is unique not only for its size, but because it is still a thriving ecosystem with potential to avoid the fate of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which is effectively dying. The Belizean public and stakeholders in the fishing and tourism industries have made their opinions known, but activists think it will take international pressure to ensure legislation is enacted that puts an end to the drilling debate. “People can leverage the opportunity of tourism to exert pressure,” Chanona says. She added that simply making the reef a topic of conversation on social media could be incredibly impactful.

Whether the Government of Belize is waiting for their citizen’s energy on the topic to die out, a sizable financial incentive not to drill, or another reason that may not be obvious, the consequences of their inaction remains the same: the Belize Barrier Reef and all the life that depends on it remain at risk.