The historic decision came this week during a World Heritage Committee meeting in Bahrain, just five months after the Belizean government imposed a moratorium on oil exploration and drilling in all of Belize’s offshore waters—a landmark piece of legislation that protected critical ecosystems and established the country as a new world leader in ocean conservation.
“At time when we are seeing numerous threats to World Heritage sites, Belize’s government has taken real action to protect one of the world’s most special places,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International. “We have seen an incredible turnaround from when the reef was being threatened by seismic testing for oil just eighteen months ago.”
Comprised of seven protected areas, Belize’s Barrier Reef System is part of the Mesoamerican Reef System, the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, and is home to nearly 1,400 species, from endangered hawksbill turtles to West Indian manatees, sting rays, coral, and six threatened species of sharks.
Nearly 200,000 people—more than half Belize’s population—rely on the reef to live. Reef-based tourism and recreational activities provide vital sources of income and account for an estimated $200 million of Belize’s GDP, while commercial fishing contributes about $15 million. The reef also provides important natural protection against damages from extreme storms along the coast.
The Belize Barrier Reef System was first inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996 in recognition of the site’s incredible biodiversity and cultural significance. But in the last decade, exploration for oil, development along the coast, and a lack of strong regulations have posed increasing threats to the fragile ecosystem. The reef site was added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger in 2009 due to the threat of irreversible damage from harmful coastal construction and oil exploration.