Belize Referendum Asks Citizens to Choose Between Oil Exploration and Tourism

Considered a hidden gem by environmentalists and tourism industry specialists, the Central American country of Belize is being billed as the next tourist hot destination in the region.

While high price points on flights have kept some budget travelers away, the relatively controlled number of tourists has served to ensure that Belize's environment--which includes jungle, rain forest, and reef-- remains pristine. Nonetheless, tourism accounts for 25 percent of all jobs in the country and about 20 percent of the GDP.

However, both the tourism industry and the country’s natural resources are under threat by the prospect of oil drilling, both onshore and off the country’s coast.

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OCEANA, a member organization of The Belize Coalition to Save Our National Heritage, contends that the government frustrated its attempts to get a referendum about exploration and drilling on the ballot for March 7 by disqualifying approximately 8,000 of the 20,000 signatures needed for that referendum to move forward.

Some of the signatures were disqualified due to signatories petitioning more than once, but most of the disqualified signatures were discounted on the basis that the signed name on the petition did not match the signed name on the voters' registration cards.

When the Coalition realized the referendum would not be incorporated into the March 7 elections to elect the next Prime Minister among other officials, it took a historic step, organizing the so-called "People's Referendum," which took place on February 29.

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The Coalition marshaled volunteers to staff 51 polling places around the country, including two mobile polling stations that were able to reach traditionally underserved rural areas. More than 28,000 Belizeans voted in the People's Referendum.

As OCEANA vice president Audrey Matura-Shepherd said as polls closed, "This referendum is not the end. It's the beginning. We're using the law to force the government to hear the people."

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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