As we wrote in early April (see our post on The Belize Barrier Reef, A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Faces Scrutiny), Belize’s Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, had been the subject with a visit by a UNESCO committee in March following allegations that the site was being compromised by tourism development and sections had been opened for unauthorized fishing. The team reported in April that there was “evidence of detrimental human impact within at least two of the sites in the Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage Site,” the South Water Caye Marine Reserve and the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve. The official report has now been issued and in correspondence sent to Belize’s UNESCO Ambassador on May 27th it was stated that Belize’s World Heritage Sites are poorly protected. According to the report, “there is no clear recognition and understanding of the management implications for a world heritage property.” As a result, “the property is faced with specific and proven imminent danger, and should be considered for immediate inscription on the list of World Heritage in Danger.” A decision will be taken at the 33rd Session of the World Heritage Committee in Seville, Spain, starting June 22nd. Everyone fears that the site will be placed in the endangered list, although there is no consensus yet as to what the designation will mean for the site.
Reaction across Belize has been quick. The Honorable Dean Barrow, Prime Minister, called the news “a wakeup call obviously and I don’t think that any plea as to resource scarcity can serve to get us away from what clearly are our obligations to ensure that in fact we protect the barrier reef system, we protect the designation that we have. It would be a tragedy if we lost it and it would be a disaster if it we lost it because of inactivity on our part because of our failure to do the right thing. So those that are on the frontline, the frontline Ministry, the frontline conservation agencies – everybody must work together to ensure that this slippage that has obviously taken place be reversed as quickly as possible.”
Opposition leader John Briceno, who was Minister of Natural resources during the time the questionable developments were authorized, claims ignorance of the facts: “According to the report and I haven’t seen the report but according to Channel 7, it stated that between 2004 and 2008 a number of leases or titles were issued even during my tenure. I want to make it absolutely clear that at no time this was brought to my attention because if it was brought to my attention, I would have never allowed them to lease any land in that area or to sell any land in that World Heritage Site.”
The Hon. Manuel Heredia Jr., Minister of Tourism, clarified that the damage was done in the past, but steps have been taken to help remedy the situation: “I feel that personally what they were referring to or what they saw on their visit to Belize is more of what was occurring in the past because personally I have met with groups in Coral Reef Alliance and the other NGOs that are really working making sure that protection is here, making sure that in the future we can have better legislation. But I feel that their report was based mostly what was done in the past and I personally have to admit that indeed that was happening, a lot of clearing of mangroves. I think it is more what was being done in the past. Today we are making sure that everything that is done is done within the limits of the law.”
UNESCO’s decision is expected to be announced shortly after next week’s meeting concludes.