04/23/2013 11:15 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2013

Offshore Oil Drilling Stopped in Belize's Barrier Reef, in Major Victory

Belize is home to the largest coral reef system in the Western hemisphere -- the Mesoamerican Reef, which stretches 560 miles, 186 of which lie in Belizean waters. In the past decade the Belizean government secretly leased rights to drill for oil in its reef -- including the famous Blue Hole -- to local companies with little to no experience in the very complicated and hazardous business of offshore oil drilling. Given the high frequency of oil spills and leaks in offshore drilling operations (which, for example, occur nearly every day in the Gulf of Mexico), the decision to green-light drilling operations in the Belizean Barrier Reef -- a habitat central to Belize's tourism-based economy -- led to a fierce national debate in Belize after the secret leases were revealed in the wake of the 2010 Gulf Oil spill. Based on the history of past environmental debates in Belize, it appeared that the government was likely to prevail. But things have now changed in Belize.

In a stunning decision, last week Belize's Supreme Court struck down the offshore drilling contracts that were issued by the government in 2004 and 2007, declaring them "unlawful, null and void." The court overturned the contracts after determining that the government failed to assess the environmental impact on Belize's ocean, as required by law, prior to issuing the contracts. The court also found that contracts were made to companies that did not demonstrate a proven ability to contribute the necessary funds, assets, machinery, equipment, tools and technical expertise to drill safely.

The suit was brought by our organization, Oceana, as well as co-claimants Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) and the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage.

With a population of just 350,000, Belize has a small economy that is heavily dependent on tourism and it barrier reef. The World Travel & Tourism Council calculates that in 2011 tourism contributed to 40,000 jobs in Belize, or 30 percent of the country's total employment. Belize's barrier reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a destination point for over 60 percent of the tourists visiting Belize. If an oil spill happened in the barrier reef, even one much smaller that the Gulf Oil spill (which was seven times the size of the Belize's ocean), it would have catastrophic effects on the reef and its future as a tourist destination.

Last year, Oceana and the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage formerly filed a request for a national referendum on the question of whether or not to drill in Belize's waters (which would have likely lead to national ban on drilling in Belizean waters). We collected 20,160 signatures on a petition from Belizeans across the country, exceeding 10 percent of the voting population, the threshold required under Belizean law to require the government to hold a referendum.

It was a powerful example of democracy in action and should have resulted in a public vote, the first of its kind under the amended Referendum Act of 2008. However, instead of allowing the referendum to proceed, the government rejected 8,047 signatures and the petition was declared invalid. The reason? The government claimed the signatures on the petition didn't match those on the voter cards closely enough. In response, Oceana and the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage quickly organized a "People's Referendum" the week before the elections at more than 50 polling stations across Belize, where all voting was overseen by a Justice of the Peace. Almost 30,000 Belizeans turned out to cast their votes, and 96 percent of them voted against offshore drilling.

Oceana and our allies also filed a court challenge to the government's ruling invalidating the 8,047 signatures. And, we filed the case challenging the legality of the government's issuance of leases themselves. This latter decision led to the Supreme Court ruling, handed down by Justice Oswell Legall, that now effectively ends the Belizean government's immediate effort to allow offshore oil drilling. This ruling is a great day for the people and country of Belize and its democratic and judicial process.

However, more remains to be done. While the nullification of offshore oil drilling leases in the country is a major legal victory, the government is appealing Justice Legall's decision and retains the ability to issue new leases in Belize's reef (as long as they comply with existing Belizean law). Belize must move now to ensure its reef is protected for generations to come and also institute a national ban on offshore oil drilling.