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Oceana Belize launches Anti-Oil Referendum

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

Oceana Belize has launched a nationwide drive to gather at least 20,000 signatures of registered Belizean voters to trigger an official referendum under the Referendum Act for a moratorium against offshore oil exploration or production.

Oceana Belize Vice President Janelle Chanona announced the start of the signature drive at Spoonah’s Cafe in Belize City on Thursday afternoon, November 17.

With a little over 190,000 voters registered on the electoral lists, the minimum 10 percent required by law to trigger a referendum would be a little over 19,000, but Chanona said they hoped to gather enough signatures so that even if some were to be rejected due to any irregularity, there would still be enough signatures to oblige the Government of Belize to call an official referendum on the issue of an anti-oil moratorium.

Chanona explained to The Reporter that she had met with the Prime Minister and CEO in the Office of the Prime Minister Narda Garcia on Friday, September 9th, 2022, to discuss the matter of offshore seismic testing.

She explained that at the meeting, Prime Minister John Briceño had shared that his administration intends to allow offshore seismic testing to explore and detect underground and undersea petroleum deposits, which Oceana Belize had sought to ban by an unofficial referendum over ten years ago.

Given such a significant policy shift—especially when it is recalled that the government had already enacted the Petroleum Operations (Maritime Zone Moratorium) Act 2017, which prohibits offshore drilling and exploration—Chanona informed that she advised the Prime Minister that the decision must first be put to the people via a referendum, and not after testing have been carried out.

The most alarming fact is that the Blue Bond “debt for nature swap” agreement between The Nature Conservancy and the Government originally contained a clause banning offshore oil exploration or production in Belizean waters, but the government had it removed, Chanona said.

The Government’s Response

Via a late Thursday evening press release, the Government of Belize confirmed the September 9th meeting.

“In the meeting…the Prime Minister, among other matters, did discuss the issue of seismic surveys and the existing moratorium with Oceana,” the Government release explained. “The Prime Minister reiterated the need to understand the extent of Belize’s offshore non-renewable economic resources in order to have an informed strategy on their potential for leveraging, given the national direction towards decarbonization and nature-based economy.”

The Government’s statement also alluded to their views on the need for a referendum. “Furthermore, the government’s commitment to allow the determination of such an important policy to be people-centered was restated by the Prime Minister.”

The release also underscored that it has not “entered into any agreements for seismic studies nor for oil exploration in offshore areas.”

The Drive for Referendum

Chanona, in her discussion with The Reporter, indicated that the Prime Minister did say that the government would be willing to hold the referendum; however, the environmental NGO preferred to err on the side of caution.

Consequently, Oceana Belize has moved ahead with a signature drive to gather the requisite number of signatures so that a referendum petition may be submitted to Governor General H.E. Dame Froyla Tzalam, to trigger an official referendum on this issue.

Oceana Belize promises to abide by the result of this official national referendum, but they feel that a matter of this national importance should be put to the people, to let the people of Belize decide by voting in the referendum.

Chanona said the marine resources of Belize are too important to the tourism and fisheries sectors and to the lifeblood of the Belizean economy to expose to risks associated with offshore oil exploration and drilling, and Oceana is moving to preserve the beauty and health of Belize’s marine environment for future generations.

More recent attempts to conduct a ‘geological’ study of Belize’s offshore maritime areas in 2016 drew such opposition from the tourism sector and residents in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker and from fishermen and tour guides along the entire coast of Belize that the study was scuttled and the exploration ship was escorted out of Belizean waters.

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