From space it just looks like a dark blotch, a circular blemish on an otherwise smooth blue surface off the coast of Belize. The spot is actually a 124-meter sinkhole, a UNESCO heritage site known as the Great Blue Hole.
It is considered one of the top dive sites in the world, and in the near future it could be vulnerable to offshore drilling.
A proposal recently made public by the country’s Ministry of Energy would allow for offshore oil exploration in 99 percent of Belize’s waters, including protected marine areas and world heritage sites. The proposal has alarmed environmental groups and UNESCO, which have pointed out the potential damage drilling could cause to the country’s vital reef systems.
“The Belize Barrier Reef system provides hundreds of millions of dollars in direct and guaranteed economic benefits via tourism, fishing and storm surge protection,” Janelle Chanona, from the U.S.-based conservation group Oceana, said in a statement. “Those hundreds of millions of dollars cannot be dismissed in favor of the mere potential of anything else.”
Home to the second-largest coral reef in the world and renowned beaches, Belize relies on tourism for up to a quarter of its GDP. Environmental experts warn that even the smallest oil spill could devastate the country’s waters, endangering both tourism and the fishing industry.
The new plan comes on the heels of a 2013 supreme court decision that invalidated all past offshore drilling licenses in Belizean waters. The judge ruled that the licenses did not employ sufficiently strict safety or environmental standards and noted that many of the companies awarded contracts did not have backgrounds in engineering or oil extraction.
Despite the ruling, many in the Belizean government have continued to push for oil extraction with an eye on the potential economic benefits. The current proposal is just a draft and carries no legal weight, but the policy could be formalized by the end of the year.
Activists have already begun to rally against the plan, pointing out Belize’s recent blunders with overzealous development projects. In 2013 a company bulldozed one of the country’s largest Mayan pyramids to gather rocks for a road project.