The State Party report on the state of conservation of the property was received by the World Heritage Centre on 12 February 2010. This report includes an introductory statement questioning the March 2009 World Heritage Centre / IUCN reactive monitoring mission, and stating it had made an omission of not having met with senior government officials in order to obtain the most accurate and updated information. The World Heritage Centre responded in a letter dated 14 April 2010, noting that high level meetings with senior government officials had been specifically requested in the mission terms of reference proposed to the State Party. The report provides the following information on the progress made in the implementation of the corrective measures
a) Permanent cessation of the sale and lease of lands, cutting of mangroves and b) strict control of development right
The State Party reports that the nine month mangrove cutting moratorium imposed in February 2008 was carried out to revise the mangrove cutting regulations, but also to review the land tenure and development situation. Though the moratorium was to have expired in November 2008, the State Party reports that the revised mangrove cutting regulations are still under review – leaving doubt as to the current regulatory framework for cutting mangroves in the property. The report refers to a Protected Area Land Tenure assessment having been concluded, though no copy of this assessment has been provided to the World Heritage Centre nor have the results been communicated.
The State Party also reports that all new land transactions have been halted, land leases cancelled and privatization of land stayed within the property. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider this a positive decision, though there is no indication on whether this is permanent, or subject to the results of the Land Tenure assessment. This issue should be further clarified. The State Party expresses unease with the World Heritage Committee request that further development be halted, indicating that informed natural resource management and wise use of natural resources should not preclude responsible development, which, in its understanding, should be allowed to continue in the property. The 2009 mission report indicated that a significant amount of development had already occurred by the time of inscription, and even more has occurred since inscription, so much so that the Outstanding Universal Value of the property may currently be at risk from existing development alone. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN therefore further re-iterate the need to guarantee the permanent cessation of land sales, mangrove cutting and other development activities, as decided by the Committee at its 33rd session (Seville, 2009). The State Party indicates that the development in the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, which it considers in line with the principles of ‘responsible development’, was an isolated case, though this conflicts with the observations made during the 2009 mission, where several mangrove islands were seen to have been significantly disturbed in the recent past. A historical review of development approvals, sale and lease of lands within the property would help clarify this situation
c) Restoration of degraded areas:
The State Party refers to the Environmental Protection Act and the Petroleum Act which requires developers to post performance bonds that would include habitat restoration work. Though this is commendable, there is room for a specific focus on lands degraded over time by inappropriate use (e.g. excessive visitation, clearing for infrastructure, illegal mangrove cutting). Such work could also include a focus on control of invasive species (see point f below).
d) Institutional coordination
The State Party explains how institutional coordination is assured, referring to the existence of various authorities, committees, projects and national government agency plans focusing on coastal zone management, resource management, development control and protected areas planning. The World Heritage Centre / IUCN 2009 mission report recognized the existence of these entities. However, it expressed concern over the absence of distinct policies pertaining to the World Heritage property within the respective mandates of these bodies, and over the absence of formal technical review processes between government departments specifically in regards to assuring the conservation of the property’s Outstanding Universal Value. It considered that these gaps risk resulting in lost opportunities to raise conservation concerns at critical junctures and are indicative of the undifferentiated treatment in national policy given to these protected areas, despite their World Heritage status. The State Party mentions that mechanisms have been identified to improve coordination, but that the enabling processes would require some institutional and legal reform. These should be formally communicated to the World Heritage Centre as soon as they have been adopted. IUCN notes that it has received reports that the Ministry of Natural Resources may be considering updating the national protected areas policy and system plan. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN recommend that any update is carried out in close collaboration with all co-managers of the property with a view to ensuring that specific provisions are included to assure the protection of the Outstanding Universal Value of the property.
e) Legal framework for co-management of the property with NGOs
The State Party reports on a number of structures designed to include advice from non-governmental stakeholders in the overall policy development and management of the property. The concern expressed by the Committee in its Decision 33COM7B.33 was over the continued absence of a framework law designed to regulate co-management of protected areas in the country. In this regard, the State Party indicates that it has embarked on a process to revise the structure and content of such agreements, but does not indicate a timescale for this process to be completed. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN suggest that particular focus be included on matters of pertinence to conservation the Outstanding Universal Value of the property in such agreements and invite the State Party to consult with them in the process of drafting these agreements. IUCN notes reports that the legal framework has been completed but awaits approval and that despite repeated requests, this document has not been made available to co-managers. Moreover, current co-management agreements have not been updated, which has led to the expiry of several of them. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN strongly recommend that the State Party take expeditious action to ensure that the legal framework is rapidly put in place and that co-management agreements are updated.
f) Introduced Species:
The report claims that introduced species were not relevant to the property. The mission in March 2009 noted Casuarina spp. (“Australian pine”, an invasive tree) growing along some coastal areas, and rats were reported as plentiful by the NGO co-managing the Half Moon Caye component of the property. The State Party recognizes the Lionfish (Pterois volitans) as an invasive species and describes its efforts at dealing with it, indicating that these are being used as models by other countries. Despite this commendable effort, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN re-iterate their concern over the absence of a clear policy in regards to introduced invasive species in general.
g) Publicly accessible land ownership information:
The State Party report indicates that this information is already publicly accessible.
h) Enlarge no-take marine zones:
The State Party reports that commercially important Queen Conch and lobster populations are healthy and well managed, although it does not provide data on catches and population levels. The concerns expressed by the 2009 mission also focused on the no-take zone being too small to sustain healthy populations of the larger, more mobile species. These would include the commercially exploited and endangered Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus) whose numbers are reported by IUCN as continuing to decline. More recently, the World Heritage Centred has learned of the critically endangered smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) which is reported to have nearly disappeared from the property and is threatened by global extinction. No information has been provided in regards to the conservation of such larger commercial and non-commercial species. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN recommend that management considerations be broadened to include species representing a wider range of ecosystem components.
i) Other conservation issues of concern – oil concessions
IUCN notes that it has received reports that oil concessions have been granted in blocks along the entire coast of Belize, including all the component sites of the propety, and considers that activation of these concessions would have serious ramifications on the integrity of the property. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN reiterate the clear policy position of the World Heritage Committee that oil exploration is incompatible with World Heritage status. The granting of oil concessions within the property highlights that current legal protection is insufficient for a World Heritage property. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN strongly urge the State Party to provide detailed information on these concessions to the World Heritage Centre as soon as possible, and to enact legislation to prohibit oil exploration within the Belize Barrier Reef System on the basis of its status as a World Heritage status.
In its report, the State Party explains that it continues to work on a draft Statement of Outstanding Universal Value and on the draft proposal for the Desired state of conservation for the removal of the property from the List of World Heritage in Danger, and that these would be submitted to the World Heritage Centre once it has been endorsed by Belize’s policy making body.
In conclusion, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN take note of the State Party overall commitment to manage its protected areas system. Over the years, important administrative responses have been made to deal with the challenge of nature conservation in Belize. Cooperation between government and non-government organizations in Belize is at a generally good level. However, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN remain very concerned over the lack of apparent distinction made between the management objectives of a World Heritage property, whose internationally recognized attributes require strict protection, and those of other components of its protected area system. They are also equally concerned by the reports of oil concessions granted within the entire marine area of the property.
The State Party, in its report, expresses frustration at the World Heritage Committee’s request for strict conservation, and presents a case of a “responsible development” approach to managing its World Heritage property, which has come to include the sale and development of mangrove islands within the marine reserve components of the property. In its decision at its 33rd session (Seville, 2009), the World Heritage Committee endorsed the conclusion of the 2009 mission that the level of development within the property, at inscription, and apparently since, is already of significant concern, particularly in light of the justifications used for the inscription of this property. These justifications focus a great deal on intact marine/mangrove ecosystem, precisely those that are most imperilled by development. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN note with concern that the State Party’s current interpretation of acceptable levels of development does not meet the integrity requirements for World Heritage properties.
Until the State Party has implemented management policies in line with its commitment under the World Heritage Convention, doubts will persist over the property’s long term integrity, and the potential that exists that it will irreversibly lose its Outstanding Universal Value. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN recommend that the State Party further implement the corrective measures, particularly with regards to the remaining concerns raised in this report. For this reason, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN recommend that the property remain on the List of World Heritage in Danger.