I recently traveled to Belize to help a local lawyer who is working to develop a set of recommendations to strengthen the country’s petroleum laws.  During the 20-minute ride into Belize City, the taxi driver told me all about Belize’s morning talk shows on Love TV and Krem TV, two of Belize’s cable stations.  He urged me to watch the next morning, saying that viewers phone in to air their opinions on all kinds of issues.  “Interesting,” I thought, but I didn’t really plan to watch.  In my mind, I imagined a Belizean version of Regis and Kelly presenting cute news stories and bantering back and forth.  Little did I know how wrong I was!

Oil development has been controversial in Belize and several years ago, the government opened virtually the entire country, including offshore areas and protected areas, to oil exploration.  Long-term exploration and development contracts were forged with oil companies behind closed doors.  The Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage, which formed in 2010, has been very effective in educating the public about the petroleum industry and advocating for a ban on oil development in offshore and protected areas, such as national parks.  Earlier this year, the Coalition gathered enough signatures to allow the public to vote on a referendum about the future of oil development in Belize.

While I was in Belize City, fresh controversy erupted over oil exploration activities in Sarstoon-Temash National Park in the southern part of the country.  Word emerged that USCapital Energy was conducting seismic testing activities in the park.  Seismic testing is a process used to map underground rock formations to predict where oil may be found.  To create the map, explosive charges are set off along transect lines to create underground seismic waves that are recorded and analyzed.  The transect lines are cut into the forest, creating a scar many miles long – in this case stretching all the way across the park.  Seismic testing fragments habitat and is very disruptive to nearby Maya and Garifuna communities.  Poachers and illegal loggers use abandoned transect lines to enter remote areas to kill wildlife and remove valuable tree species.  SATIIM, the local indigenous environmental organization, sent a team out to monitor the exploration activities and posted a report describing the environmental damage and evidence of illegal logging that the team found.  

I was working one afternoon when ELAW partner Candy Gonzalez called and said, “Quick, turn on the television to Channel 51!”   It was Love TV’s rebroadcast of that morning’s talk show and the guests were Chief Forest Officer, Wilber Sabido, and Geology and Petroleum Department Director, Andre Cho.  They were there to answer questions about why they had granted permission for the seismic testing to occur in a national park and without prior evaluation of the potential environmental impacts.  The talk show hosts asked many pointed questions and frequently referred to calls that they had received from the public expressing concern about the exploration activities.  Sabido and Cho defended their decision and the hosts were rather gentle in their follow-up questioning, but it was nevertheless engaging and interesting to watch the interview.  I gained a new appreciation for this form of “talk show democracy” and will be sure to tune in the next time I visit Belize.

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney