In Belize, thousands of citizens are in an uproar about the government's determination to drill for offshore oil. The government, represented by Prime Minister Dean Barrow, was just narrowly re-elected -- but despite a clear message from the people, it continues to ignore the significant outcry against offshore drilling.
Belize is a small and proud nation, about the size of Massachusetts, with only 350,000 citizens and an economy that depends on tourism. The World Travel & Tourism Council calculates that in 2011 tourism contributed to 40,000 jobs in Belize, which is 30 percent of the country's total employment. Current plans for drilling include sites in the middle of Belize's reef -- the Mesoamerican reef which is the world's second largest barrier reef system, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a destination point for over 60 percent of the tourists that support Belize's economy.
People in the tourism industry and many other Belizeans are concerned about what an oil spill in the middle of the reef would do to one of the world's natural wonders and to the future of Belize as a tourist destination. If superimposed over the marine areas of Belize, BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill is seven times larger. A spill of that size would have catastrophic effects for the entire country.
Last year, those concerned about the government's offshore oil drilling plans -- including Oceana and the Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage -- requested the government hold a national referendum on whether or not to drill in Belize's waters. They collected 20,000 signatures on a petition from Belizeans across the country, exceeding the number required by law to trigger a referendum. These signatures, representing Belizeans from all walks of life, comprised over 10 percent of the voting population. It was a powerful example of democracy in action and should have resulted in a public vote, the first of its kind under the referendum amendment of 2008.
But instead of allowing the referendum to proceed, the government rejected 8,000 signatures and the petition was declared invalid. The basis for rejecting these signatures? The government claimed the signatures on the petition didn't match those on the voter cards closely enough. The people were effectively silenced because of poor penmanship.
What the government underestimated, though, was the determination of Belize's people to be heard. In response to the government's referendum denial, Oceana Belize and the Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage hosted a "People's Referendum" the week before the elections at over 51 polling stations with election judges. Almost 30,000 Belizeans turned out to cast their votes, with 96 percent of them voting no to offshore drilling. The message couldn't have been clearer.
Earlier in the year, the government was expected to win re-election by a large margin and preserve its substantial majority, but the election was very close and the government lost eight seats. It walked away with a simple majority. But Prime Minister Barrow insists he has the mandate to continue on the same course and issued a warning to all not to test him, as he will not back-off and it will become "tit for tat."
The love and concern for Belize's reef reaches far beyond the country lines. There are countless people from all over the world who have developed a special connection to this breathtaking country after swimming in its lovely waters or diving in its reef -- all thanks to its pristine natural resources. We all hope the government, which loves Belize's barrier reef like we do, will hear the concerns of the people in Belize and around the world and ban offshore oil drilling in Belize's waters to help protect its barrier reef and its natural heritage.