Belize barrier reef removed from UNESCO’s sites in danger list

June 27, 2018, 9:04 a.m.
The coral and marine life of Glover's Reef in Belize.
Photo: Kimon Berlin/flickr

After a year of extensive conservation moves by the Belize government, including the suspension of offshore oil drilling, UNESCO has removed the country's barrier reef from its List of World Heritage in Danger.

“Today’s removal of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System from the List of World Heritage in Danger is a pivotal moment for the World Heritage Convention and the oceans. The conservation leadership of the government of Belize has brought a landmark shift for the world’s second largest coral reef system at a time when coral reefs are severely threatened by climate change. Today’s outcome shows the power of collective action among government, UNESCO, IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and civil society and sets an example for the rest of the world,” said Dr. Mechtild Rossler, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

The Belize Reef is the largest barrier reef system in the Northern Hemisphere and second largest in world. It comprises 80 percent of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which was named as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.

How did UNESCO come to this decision?

Great Blue Hole, an underwater cave in the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System Great Blue Hole is an underwater cave in the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System. (Photo: Wollertz/Shutterstock)

Last year, Belize made a choice, prioritizing its coral reefs over oil production in that precious marine environment. New legislation in January 2018 permanently suspended all new offshore drilling exploration. The World Wildlife Federation says Belize is one of only three countries to adopt this legislation.

"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, in a statement. "We have seen an incredible turnaround from when the reef was being threatened by seismic testing for oil just eighteen months ago."

Belize's oil production is small, roughly 3,000 barrels a day, according to Quartz, but it still accounts for a quarter of its exports. Tourism, however, is estimated to bring $182 million to $237 million per year to the country, which boasts the largest collection of reefs in the Western Hemisphere. Reef-related tourism and fisheries support 190,000 people in a country with a population of 370,000 people.

The country is betting on the environment to keep its economy chugging along, not activities that could potentially harm it and the 1,400 species that call the reefs home.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in January 2018.

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