Nateco Foundation

Sometime in the mid-2000s, unbeknownst to most citizens, Belize’s Geology and Petroleum Department had published maps revealing that the entire country had been carved up into oil concessions, including marine monuments and the famous Blue Hole formation. The maps remained niche knowledge for researchers and oil companies until 2010, when tragedy struck 1,200 kilometers (800 miles) to the north.

On April 20, BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, killing 11 people and unleashing 200 million gallons of toxic oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Billions of dollars were lost as fishing withered and tourists vacationed elsewhere. “Everybody really realized: I had no idea it could be this bad, and this scary,” Chanona said. “That’s when a national consciousness about the inherent dangers of offshore oil kicked in.”

Oceana’s Belize office, then only a year old, had been campaigning to boot bottom trawling and other forms of destructive fishing from the country’s 300-kilometer (190-mile) barrier reef. The team realized that a toxic spill, slicking corals and poisoning wildlife, could render any marine conservation efforts moot. They publicized the Geology and Petroleum Department maps, along with the fact that the government was actively courting offshore oil interests.

For many Belizeans, these were grim revelations. A giant spill would cripple the country’s economy. Thirty-five percent of all jobs in Belize depend on tourism, much of it centered on sport fishing, scuba diving and other activities that rely on a healthy ocean. Another 15,000 are tied to the seafood sector — huge numbers in a country of just 400,000 people.

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