Belize’s Barrier Reef is not only one of the country’s largest income generators, but it’s also a marvel of nature. The Barrier Reef Reserve System which includes the atolls, mangrove forests and cayes was officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Now 20 years later, the organizations and industries that benefit and make their livelihoods off the reef gathered to celebrate the second largest barrier reef in the world. We spoke to John Burgos, the Executive Director of the BTIA, one of the ceremony’s organizers about the importance of our reef being recognized by UNESCO…

John Burgos – Executive Director, BTIA
“Well basically this is the beginning of a series of events that we’ve been organising over the last 5 months to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the World Heritage Site of the Belize Barrier Reef is being recognised by UNESCO community. We would like for Belizeans to really get to understand how much value it brings to the economy and to what Belize stands for not only for the tourism industry, we’re looking at everything that resides within the coast line and marine ecosystems in Belize are influenced and impacted by the Belize Barrier Reef System.”

Alex Courtney
“Now we speak about the safety of our reef and marine life. In the past few months there has been very large national dispute about the offshore oil exploration. How do events like that factor into making sure that the marine ecosystem is safe?”

John Burgos – Executive Director, BTIA
“Well as you know the people have spoken in various locations to the government and to the world as a matter of fact with regards to our sentiments towards the Belize Barrier Reef and you know we recognise we have looked at all the economic values that it brings to the economy, all the amount of Belizeans that make a livelihood off the Belize Barrier Reef System and the ecosystems in Belize. I mean you’re looking at 190,000 Belizeans that benefit from the marine coastline and the barrier reef. You looking at about a million Belizean dollars yearly in revenue and that include tourism, fishing and any other relevant industry that associated with the marine. So we gonna ensure that we continue pushing for it to be recognise and for it to be given the importance of being able to secure it especially when you already experience various strains from climate change and other externalities. So offshore drilling cannot be added to that list, we got to protect and preserve the barrier as it is today.”

The BTIA is also a member of the Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage, the organization that led the charge against the seismic survey off the Belizean coast. After successfully getting government to cancel the surveys, the Coalition pushed government to update its moratorium on offshore drilling and demanded a national referendum. We asked Burgos for an update…

Alex Courtney
“There is a very large push for a referendum to kind of decide once and for all whether or not this is something that Belizeans wanted to see in our waters. Is there any update on where the coalition is in terms of pushing that into the government and ratifying that?”

John Burgos – Executive Director, BTIA
“OCEANA presented the government with a bill for a moratorium. We received a response from the government whereby they are outline their responses where we’re not satisfied. One of the key things we were pushing for was one of the conditions to move the moratorium was to have a national referendum with regards to the offshore drilling so that the people of Belize can ultimately decide faith of the Belize Barrier Reef in relation to the offshore drilling. We still in negotiations, we have responded to government with an official letter, we are awaiting their response. I’m not sure if it has to do with the time of the year, this is gearing up to the end of the year, Christmas time so we’re going to have to wait to see a response. There’s nothing final yet, the key thing the government has stated is that they’re going to keep the policy based legislation that they have; they are not going to go into written policy whereby it is going to be mandated for them. So currently basically we’re still at the stage whereby government overnight can decide offshore drilling is the way to go.”

The Belize Barrier Reef is home to many species of fish, coral and other marine life found nowhere else in the world.