UNESCO concerned about drilling in World Heritage Site
The Belize Barrier Reef is currently on UNESCO’s list of endangered World Heritage Sites. It now faces another threat, a more serious one at that, since the reef could be permanently removed as a Heritage Site because of licenses granted for oil exploration and drilling. A UNESCO specialist spoke to News Five from the UNESCO offices in Paris and told Jose Sanchez of the potential threat of de-listing the Barrier Reef.
Jose Sanchez, Reporting
By its own mandate the Department of Geology and Petroleum issued concessions to explore for oil on land and sea. APAMO and OCEANA have gone on record calling for a ban of exploration on the seas and now UNESCO is sounding its own concern for the barrier reef, which is a World Heritage Site that was put on the endangered list in 2009.
“What is your reaction to that? What is UNESCO’s reaction to that?”
Marc Patry, Programme Specialist, Special Projects Unit, UNESCO World Heritage Center
“As I speak I see the map here. I received the map of the Belize Petroleum Contracts Map and it is quite an eye opener. There is a policy within the World Heritage convention that World Heritage sites should be off limit to mining and hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation. In that sense we don’t want to see oil exploration or drilling in the water or on land in the world heritage sites. It’s a pretty clear statement from the World Heritage Committee. Even we have large companies who also recognize this. For instance Shell is an international oil company, has made a public commitment not to explore nor extract hydrocarbons in world heritage sites. This is a major testament or major point of support on behalf of the private sector for the same thing.”
Beverly Wade, the Fisheries Administrator, is a part of the World Heritage Committee.
Beverly Wade, Fisheries Administrator
“From my view as Fisheries Administrator and part of the World Heritage Site Committee, it was an unfortunate thing that happened. We don’t believe the process was a truly comprehensive process that was done and that the decision was properly informed. But it was a visit which highlighted that there were some—and government has taken note of those areas we need to look at carefully and government has also since then put plans into actions raised by that report. But what it does overall, it signals that when you have sensitive ecosystems, when you have precious resources such as the reef system, the second largest reef in the world, there is a need for us to be cautious, there is a need for us to be meticulous, we have to ensure that at the end of the day we have the systems and mechanisms in place, we have good coordination, we have good communication between all the regulatory agencies, to ensure that whatever activity we are doing out there for the greater good of the country is being done in a responsible way.”
According to Marc Patry, UNESCO’s Specialist in the Special Project Unit of the World Heritage Centre, sites are not just the concern of governments and environmentalists but also of private institutions.
“Several major banks have officially recognized World Heritage Sites as places they don’t want to engage in. They don’t want to be supporting projects within World Heritage Sites that would comprise those sites. So everybody is getting behind the ball here and we’re expecting that national governments around the world, not just Belize, also recognize the same principle of conservation for the long term. In fact, establishing hydrocarbon and mining professions in the World Heritage Sites goes against the whole spirit of the convention and we’ll certainly be starting a dialogue with the authorities in Belize to learn more about what their intentions are.”
Patry says that the World Heritage Site in Oman has been de-listed because of oil exploration. Belize can share the same fate.
“Is there a possibility that the site could be totally de-listed?”
“Certainly, the first site ever to be de-listed was because of the oil exploration being carried out on the site. This is in Oman; the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary. I was there myself, I went and carried out a monitoring mission just as I did in Belize last year and the Saudi’s there were in fact adamant saying we’re going to go explore there and if there was oil there, we’re going to go and take it out. We’re sorry about World Heritage. And based on that, the site was removed from the World Heritage list. We are also aware of other countries that have World Heritage Sites in which there are concessions mapped out in them. They may not be active right now. But it is there. This is something we’re grappling with and trying to resolve working closely with the countries involved.”
The Chief Environmental Officer says that the impact of the exploration stage is minimal. However, the Department of Environment gets involved if commercial quantities are found. But more than that, the voice of the people can help to decide if oil will be extracted.
Martin Alegria, Chief Environmental Officer, Dept. of Environment
“They must do an Environmental Impact Assessment where all these issues and these scenarios that you and others that I have spoken to are very much concerned about, need to be taken into consideration. At the end of the day again, I’d like to remind you and the general public, that these EIAs are reviewed by professionals and highly technical people who at the end can arise at three conclusions. One; to proceed with the project as is because the EIA has addressed all these areas of concern including the economics, the social and more so the environmental. It can be that that the NEAC foe example, is not too convinced and requires more info, more assessments or more commitment from the companies. A third option can be the cost further outweighs the benefits and that’s where this scenario that you’re referring to, perhaps might be. And it is not only based on technical merits and demerits that he NEAC and the EIA looks at, but it’s also based on public outcry. That is a big part of the EIA process. At these public consultations that the public has to have their voice heard.”
Reporting for News Five, Jose Sanchez.