Sunday, March 4, 2012

Leap Year Day - Save our Barrier Reef!

Belize, the "Jewel of Central America," is rich in resources. At the top of the list is its natural beauty, including the coral reef situated off the coast, the second longest reef in the world. Every year thousands of tourists come from all over the world to explore the reef and enjoy the hospitality of Belize. Tourism is one of the country's largest industries. As the country's infrastructure improves and grows, tourism will continue to grow in importance.

Belize oil pumping station Spanislookout
Pumping station at Spanish Lookout
Another resource, although not so plentiful, is petroleum. One company, Belize Natural Energy, began exploring in the Spanish Lookout area in 2002, and now produces about 5,000 barrels a day. Before that, many companies had unsuccessfully explored for 50 years. The crude is processed here, but all of the oil is exported. None of the owners of the company are Belizean and they hire very few Belizeans. The sole benefit of BNE (other than some small grants to various local groups, such as POWA) to the country are the corporate revenue taxes.

According to an article on,
"Most of Belize’s 8,867 square miles of territory and much of the waters offshore have been allocated out in petroleum concessions to 18 different companies with a range of foreign shareholders from as close as the USA and as far off as Taiwan and even a local gambling den," and "Princess Petroleum Limited, belonging to the owners of the Princess Casino, has a contract to explore 1 million plus acres of Belize for oil. The license is mostly offshore, but also some inland exploration. The company is allegedly well connected with local politicians of the ruling United Democratic Party." (Read the entire article.)

So now to get to the focus of this blog entry - offshore drilling. The government is promoting offshore exploration and drilling "for the benefit of the people of Belize." Enter Oceana, an international organization dedicated to protecting the oceans and natural oceanic resources of the earth. They have been present in Belize for a long time, focussing on overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and climate change. Barrier reef protection is at the top of the list. More than 20% of the Belizean population derive revenues because of the barrier reef. Regarding offshore drilling, Oceana, in partnership with the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage, has been advertising vigorously since before Steve and I arrived in Belize last March via posters, radio and TV commercials, newspaper articles and canvassing to spread the word about the issue, and the dangers to the barrier reef. (Read Oceana's overview.)

In 2008, the Belize legislature passed a law allowing people to bring issues to a referendum. The petitioners for a referendum must collect signatures from at least 10% of the registered voters (about 18,000 people) for the issue to be allowed on the government ballot. This is the first time the new law has been tested. Oceana turned in close to 21,000 signatures. When the signatures were reviewed by the ministry in charge of elections, more than 8,000 signatures were rejected.

This was, of course, a big setback. They were expecting some problems with duplicates or some whose voter registration was in doubt, perhaps up to 1,000, but not with almost 40% of the names. The group is following up by requesting documentation on why each signature was rejected. In the meantime, Oceana's next step was to announce that a People's Referendum would be held on Wednesday, February 29. The vote would be funded completely by Oceana and the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage.

One of the polling locations in Dangriga. More than 3700 people
voted from Stann Creek District.
The turnout was impressive (more than 29,000 voters), and the vote, not surprisingly, was against the offshore drilling by about 96%. Of course, it was an unofficial vote, and so holds no weight with the government. However, Prime Minister Dean Barrow went on record yesterday to say that he can't ignore the fact that so many people made the extra effort to voice their opinion. He said that if re-elected, he "personally would be prepared to support the Government sponsoring the referendum to be held at an appropriate time after we would have allowed for a full-throttle debate during which people will not just hear from one side."
I have met NO one here who is in favor of offshore drilling. Of course, I live here on the coast of Belize, so that's not surprising. I have read some articles quoting some who support the drilling initiative.

General elections will be held this Wednesday, March 7. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we do not get involved in politics. For our safety, we will be in a status of Alert and Stand Fast for March 6-8. Focus this week will be on the politicians, not the barrier reef. But I'll keep you updated on this important issue.

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