Clear and Present Danger for the Reef in Belize

June 24, 2009
Press Release from Candy Gonzalez, J.D.President of Board, BELPO and BACONGO


Recognizing the fact that our World Heritage Site is in danger is an important first step in improving our efforts to save it. 

The potential for our inclusion on the "World Heritage in Danger” list is a positive thing, presenting both an opportunity and a challenge.  Much of the attention over the last week has focused on a perceived ‘threat’ to the tourism industry from a danger listing – but this is not likely.

In November, 2004, Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO), with support from many Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs (BACONGO) members and others, filed a petition asking the World Heritage Committee to designate the Belize Barrier Reef System World Heritage Site as a "World Heritage Site, In Danger" to bring attention to the threats to the Reef, particularly from climate change, and seek to give it more protection.

Similar Petitions were filed for the Huascaron Glacier Park (Peru) and Mount Everest (Nepal).

In 2005, 2006, and 2007 representatives of the petitioning groups tried to get the World Heritage Committee to recognize the petitions and address climate change.  In February 2006, Dr.  Melanie McField went to Paris to give expert testimony in front of the World Heritage Committee as to the state of the Belize Barrier Reef System (BBRS).

The Committee decided not to list these sites in danger due to climate change, but produced a special report on the threat of climate change on World Heritage Sites and began looking closer at the management systems in these World Heritage Sites.

The Petition was based on the premise that the reef was suffering from great damage due to climate change but other factors, like tourism, cruise ships, loosely controlled coastal development, and overfishing were making matters worse. 

What Now?
UNESCO’s current recommendation to put the BBRS on the In Danger List was a result of their findings during a weeklong visit in March.  It considers past problems, as in the Bacalar Chico and Pelican Cayes, and more recent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) proposals currently being considered within the World Heritage Site (WHS).

Numerous parts of the WHS, mainly mangrove islands, were actually sold to individuals (local and foreign) in direct contravention to their status as a World Heritage Site since 1996.

Putting the BBRS on the “In Danger” list is a positive step for the reef.  It is something that can bring international focus as well as funding to management efforts.  Once Belize has taken steps to better protect the World Heritage Site, it can be removed from the “In Danger” list. 

The Galapagos World Heritage Site was put on the World Heritage In Danger list in June 2007.  The President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, along with the Charles Darwin Foundation, supported the action in order to draw attention to the greater management effort needed to ensure the long-term conservation of this site, with support from UNESCO and other international bodies.

It was not perceived as a condemnation of the country but as a positive step to signal an increase in the level of management, recognition of its fragility and its need for protection from over fishing, pollution, natural disasters, problems with managing tourism, despite having some of the strictest regulations on development and tourism anywhere.

Sound familiar?  It is.  Those problems along with loosely controlled coastal development and even the sale of portions of the BBRS are exactly what our World Heritage Site faces and the reason why it is in need of added protection.  Ignoring the problems, as the previous government chose to do, will only make matters worse.

We should embrace this chance to improve the BBRS World Heritage Site's management defenses and encourage all who care about the Reef to work together to protect it for future generations. 

We join with all those calling on the Government to make every effort to implement the following recommendations

  • Cancel all land leases and titles granted within the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System (BBRS) World Heritage Site that took place after 1996
  • Place a permanent prohibition on the sale /lease of lands within the WHS
  • Prohibit dredging and alterations of mangroves within and in close proximity to the WHS
  • Complete, adopt and implement the Coastal Zone Management Plan
  • Adopt and implement the revisions aimed at strengthening the Mangrove Protection Regulations
  • Fill gaps in marine protected areas, including an increase in the amount of marine territory under full protection (now less than 4%)
  • Revise the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations and process to include stronger consideration for the cumulative impacts of developments
  • Adopt and implement the National Protected Areas Co-Management Framework for Belize We urge the government to keep collaborating with non-governmental partners.  Unfortunately, reversing the trend of reef decline is increasingly more difficult.

Strong leadership and tough management decisions are now required to prevent this magnificent natural treasure from slipping away, both in name and in actuality.  Joint Statement by BELPO, BACONGO and the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative


For further information, contact:

Candy Gonzalez, J.D.
President of Board, BELPO and BACONGO
POB 105, San Ignacio Town, Belize
Tel: 501 824-2476

Melanie McField, Ph.D.
Coordinator, Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative Smithsonian Institution
1061 Queen Helmut St, Belize City, Belize, Central America
Tel: 501-223-7680
Fax: 501-223-7681