Citing impressive results from recent conservation efforts, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has voted to remove the Belize Barrier Reef system from their list of outstanding natural and cultural sites that are in danger of destruction.
Hugging the tropical nation’s Caribbean coastline, the 298-kilometer-long (185-mile) reef is home to over 500 species of fish, 106 species of coral, several types of sea turtle, a dizzying assortment of marine invertebrates, and populations of the threatened West Indian manatee (a species that was previously considered endangered but relisted by the Trump administration).
The breathtaking formation – which contains over 400 islands, three atolls, vast stretches of mangrove forests, numerous lagoons, and estuaries – represents about 80 percent of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (MBRS); a continuous stretch of reef and shallow sea ecosystems that begins at the tip of the Yucatan peninsula and snakes its way down the waters off Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. The MBRS is the largest reef in the Northern Hemisphere and second in the world, behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Due to its grandeur and incredible diversity of life, the system was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1996. Explaining its unquantifiable value to the planet, the committee wrote that the Belize Barrier Reef is “distinctive on account of its size, array of reef types and the luxuriance of corals thriving in a pristine condition… The spectacular picturesque natural setting of brilliant white sand cayes and verdant green mangrove cayes is in dramatic contrast to the surrounding azure waters.”
But by 2009, increased destruction by the logging companies, oil drilling, and unsustainable waterfront development led the committee to move the natural wonder to the List of World Heritage in Danger.
Thankfully, the Belizean government stepped up in response to the classification – and the many warnings issued by environmental scientists and advocates. In the subsequent nine years, legislation was enacted to restrict deforestation and establish marine reserves. There are currently seven such protected zones, though they encompass only about 12 percent of the total barrier reef system, per UNESCO.
Most impressively, in December 2017, lawmakers passed a complete moratorium on oil exploration, meaning that no offshore drilling will occur in the nation’s waters. According to the BBC, only a short list of other nations have adopted this comprehensive stance, boldly prioritizing ecological health over the lucrative fossil fuel industry. (However, thanks to the income provided by tourism to the reef and fishing from its seafood stocks, protecting the system is not just noble but a wise financial move.)
Taking these actions into account, the UNESCO council came to their decision on June 26 during the ongoing meeting in Bahrain. The BBC reported that members lauded the country’s "visionary plan to manage the coastline,” and stated that “the level of conservation we hoped for has been achieved."