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Are Belizean Protected-Lands Safe From Oil?

Deforestation and habitat destruction in tropical rainforests have long been a concern for conservationists. The country of Belize has fared better than many countries in protecting its bio-diverse habitats; for instance, approximately 93 percent of Belize is covered by forests, housing more than 220 tree species and 350 species of birds.[i] Further, Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world, and the second largest population of West Indian Manatees.[ii]

However, recent petroleum development condoned by the Belizean government has sparked concerns over the strength of environmental protections in the country. In 2004 and 2007, the Belizean Department of Natural Resources and the Environment awarded numerous petroleum contracts (called Production Sharing Agreements or PSAs) to oil companies. Following the PSA awards for petroleum exploration and development in areas including protected lands, Oceana (an NGO focused on protecting marine environments in Belize) organized a special unofficial referendum on the issue. In the special referendum, about 20 percent of Belizeans came out to vote; of those voters, 96 percent wanted to prevent the government from allowing oil development pursuant to the PSAs.[iii] While there may be some selection bias in this result, the intensity of the results does indicate popular support for environmental protections.

However, the government’s actions still might place numerous protected areas in jeopardy. A trial court decision struck down the PSAs once because they did not require Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) in violation of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA). [iv] However, the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment appealed, with the appeal outcome still pending for appeal as of this post. If the decision is reversed, the PSAs will be allowed to continue. As written, the PSAs allow invasive exploration activities, even in forest and marine reserves, without EIAs.[v]

Even if the trial court decision striking down the PSAs is affirmed, the government could award only slightly modified PSAs that do require EIAs. However, the EIA requirement only mandates that the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment conduct the study as an information gathering exercise.[vi] Oil exploration activities might include seismic testing and drilling test wells, both of which include clearing large areas of forest and creating loud, disturbing noises. Previously, these activities were declared to have a substantial environmental impact;[vii] recent regulatory changes now purport to make EIAs for such activities optional.[viii] In addition to the potential impact on lands protected principally by the Government of Belize (GOB), it is unclear what impact oil development activities may have on lands protected through conservation agreements between the U.S. and GOB.

In 2001, the U.S. and GOB signed a conservation agreement in the form of a debt-for-nature (DFN) swap. DFN agreements emerged as a conservation tool in the 1980s when concerns over deforestation in developing countries, particularly in bio-diverse tropical areas, erupted.[ix] Concurrently, developing countries were overwhelmed by a debt crisis that forced the promotion of extractive industries in order to raise the funds to fulfill debt obligations.[x] DFN agreements were proposed as a practical tool to address both of these problems; they could “reroute the money developing countries spend servicing their enormous debts into conservation projects in their own countries.”[xi]

The U.S. has relied on DFN agreements since their emergence, using them regularly throughout the world.[xii] In 1998, Congress passed the Tropical Forest Conservation Act, designed to provide debt relief in exchange for conservation.[xiii] While this may appear to be a win-win, one of the largest environmental concerns with these agreements regards the “extent to which the benefits of the conservation commitment hold over time.”[xiv] Thus, it is critical to examine the effectiveness of the Belize DFN agreement as new issues, like the new PSAs, arise.

The 2001 DFN agreement between the Nature Conservancy, the U.S. government, and GOB protected almost 30,000 acres of lands in the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor (“MMMC”),[xv] a region home to numerous endangered species with an inter-related group of ecosystems, including tropical rainforests, mangrove forests, seagrass beds, and a barrier reef.[xvi] About 11,000 acres of land in “Crown Block 127” in the MMMC were transferred from GOB to the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (“TIDE”) “to be held in trust for the people of Belize.”[xvii] An additional 19,000 acres were purchased by TIDE with funds provided as part of the agreement.[xviii] The DFN agreement included specific provisions requiring land transfers to TIDE to be “free of all liens and encumbrances under the laws of Belize.”[xix] Because that land is no longer government-owned or co-managed, it is not clear that the government could authorize any petroleum activities directly on the DFN-protected land.[xx]

Even if the GOB cannot directly authorize petroleum activities on the DFN land, it might still be substantially impacted by petroleum activities on neighboring lands. While a thorough review of all of the awarded PSAs is beyond the scope of this post, an examination of one PSA (that with US Capitol Energy) revealed a potential conflict; the land awarded to US Capitol Energy appears to surround some of the DFN land.[xxi] Due to the interconnected nature of the MMMC ecosystems and the gravity of potential environmental impacts from petroleum activities, the DFN land in Block 127 may still be detrimentally impacted. Further study will be necessary to determine the gravity of these impacts.

Just as the DFN agreement regarding lands under TIDE may be less problematic than conservationists initially feared, conservation concerns might be somewhat alleviated in the Sarstoon Temash National Park, also part of the MMMC region. A Supreme Court (trial-level) decision on April 4, 2014 prevented pre-drilling activities including road construction in the National Park, co-managed by Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) and the Forest Department.[xxii] While the decision was not explicitly based on conservation grounds,[xxiii] it follows a 2006 decision quashing permits for oil development activities in the same park in part for not conducting EIAs in violation the EPA.[xxiv] While environmental groups have hailed the decision as a legal success for conservation,[xxv] these rulings have not prevented U.S. Capitol Energy from continuing with their pre-drilling activities.[xxvi]

Though the tension between conservation and extractive industries in Belize is not unique, the popular support for environmental protections and the small size of Belize’s population make strong environmental protections potentially achievable. While Belize has enacted multiple environmental protection statutes, the power and strength of those protections are still being established. The fate of the current PSAs in the court system will provide significant guidance in determining the environmental impacts on national protected lands and DFN-protected lands in the future. Further, it will play a key role in sending a message about the priority that environmental protections do or do not take in Belizean society.


-Louisa Eberle is a General Member on MJEAL. She can be reached at


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.


[ii] Id.

[iii] About 30,000 voters turned out to vote in the referendum, which was held during working hours on a weekday. Andy Sharpless, Oceana, CEO Note: 30,000 Strong Against Drilling in Belize, BLOG, (Mar. 5, 2012),

[iv] Oceana in Belize v. Minister of Natural Res. and the Env’t, (2013) No. 810/2011, ¶33 (Belize Sup. Ct.), notice of appeal filed May 2, 2013 (Belize App. Ct.), available at

[v] Id.

[vi] The Queen v. Belize Alliance of Conservation & Non Governmental Orgs., No. 61/2002, ¶23  (Belize Sup. Ct.) available at (recognizing that the EIA is an information-gathering exercise).

[vii] Sarstoon-Temash Inst. for Indigenous Mgmt. v. Forest Dep’t, (2006) No. 212/2006, ¶19 (Belize Sup. Ct.), available at; Oceana in Belize, No. 810/2011 at ¶29.

[viii] Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations 2007 Amendment (Act No. 24/2007), Schedule II ¶16(a) (Belize), available at (defining “Petroleum exploration activities such as seismic surveys” as only requiring an Environmental Impact Assessment at the discretion of the Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment).

[ix] In the 1980s, ecologists estimated that approximately 100,000 square kilometers of tropical forests were being lost each year and all of the tropical forests in the world “would be destroyed or seriously diminished by the year 2000.” See Laurie P. Greener, Comment, Debt-for-Nature Swaps in Latin American Countries: The Enforcement Dilemma, 7 Conn. J. Int’l L. 123, 132–34 (1991).

[x] Amanda Lewis, Comment, The Evolving Process of Swapping Debt for Nature, 10 COLO. J. INT’L ENVTL. L. & POL’Y, 431, 432 (1999).

[xi] Jared E. Knicley, Note, Debt, Nature, and Indigenous Rights: Twenty-five Years Of Debt-For-Nature Evolution, 36 HARV. L. REV., 79, 81 (2012)

[xii] Examples of other DFN agreements include those between the U.S. and Bolivia, Bangladesh, Ecuador, and Indonesia. Jared E. Knicley, Note, Debt, Nature, and Indigenous Rights: Twenty-five Years Of Debt-For-Nature Evolution, 36 HARV. L. REV., 79, 94;96;100;106, (2012)

[xiii] Suzanna Egolf, MOBILIZING FUNDING FOR BIODIVERSITY CONSERVATION: A USER-FRIENDLY TRAINING GUIDE (Ctr. for Biological Diversity, Working Paper), available at,d.ZWU.

[xiv] Jared E. Knicley, Note, Debt, Nature, and Indigenous Rights: Twenty-five Years Of Debt-For-Nature Evolution, 36 HARV. L. REV., 79, 87 (2012)

[xv] Agreement Regarding a Debt-For-Nature Swap to Prepay and Cancel Certain Debt Owed By the Government of Belize to the Government of the United States of America and its Agencies, U.S.-Belize, Art I, Aug. 2, 2001, State Dept. No. 01-95 [hereinafter DFN Agreement], available at

[xvi] The Nature Conservancy, Belize: Maya Mountain Marine Corridor, PLACES WE PROTECT, (last visited Apr. 9, 2014).

[xvii] DFN Agreement, supra note 15 at Art. II §2.

[xviii] Id. at Art. I.

[xix] Id. at Art. §1(g).

[xx] Id. at Art. III §1(b)-(c).

[xxi] See the map of the conservation areas in MMMC, with Block 127 representing a substantial portion of the DFN land. Greg DeVries et al., Enhancing Collaboration for Conservation and Development in Southern Belize, 151, available at Compare with the map of the PSA award to US Capitol Energy, and see that the DFN lands are surrounded by the contract US Capitol Energy contract. Ministry of Energy, Science & Technology and Public Utilities,  BELIZE PETROLEUM CONTRACT MAP, (last visited Apr. 9, 2014).

[xxii] Isani Cayetano, Major Court Ruling in Favor of SATIIM, but Oil Company Says it Will Continue Drilling, NEWS FIVE (Apr. 3, 2014),

[xxiii] The April 4 decision focused on the lack of indigenous consent for the oil development activities and indigenous property rights in the area. See Sarstoon Temash Inst. for Indigenous Mgmt. v. Attorney Gen. of Belize, (2014), No. 394/2013 ¶13  (Belize), available at

[xxiv] Sarstoon-Temash Inst. for Indigenous Mgmt. v. Forest Dep’t, (2006) No. 212/2006, ¶19 (Belize Sup. Ct.), available at; Oceana in Belize v. Minister of Natural Res. and the Env’t, (2013) No. 810/2011, ¶58-59 (Belize Sup. Ct.), notice of appeal filed May 2, 2013 (Belize App. Ct.), available at

[xxv] Environmental Community Supports Supreme Court Decision in SATIIM/GOB Lawsuit, NEWS FIVE (Apr. 4, 2014),

[xxvi] Daniel Ortiz, Mayans Claim Victory in Court, US Capital Clings to Status Quo on the Ground, NEWS 7 BELIZE (Apr. 3, 2014),

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