The Belize Barrier Reef has been removed from the endangered World Heritage Sites after nine years, thanks to the country’s “visionary” steps to preserve it.

Great Blue Hole.

The reef’s Great Blue Hole.
Image credits U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

The 190-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef System has been removed from UNESCO’s lists of endangered sites following a widespread campaign to protect it, the United Nations (UN) reported on Tuesday.

The reef was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1996 and harbors almost 1,400 different species — held to be one of the most biodiverse marine sites on the planet. Charles Darwin himself described it as “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies”. However, the Belize Reef System was listed as “in danger” in 1996 by UNESCO as oil exploration, mangrove deforestation, and illegal land sales and subsequent land use infringed upon the reef’s stability.

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Over half of Belize’s population, some 200,000 people, are estimated to depend on the reef directly for their livelihood. Furthermore, tourism is a key industry for Belize, bringing in millions of dollars each year — so these threats to the reef represented a huge concern for the country’s government.

Last December, officials issued an indefinite moratorium on all oil exploration and drilling in the country’s waters — UNESCO says that this decision warranted removing the reef from the list of endangered sites.

“The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System […] is an outstanding natural system consisting of the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, offshore atolls, several hundred sand cays, mangrove forests, coastal lagoons and estuaries,” the agency said in its description of the region.

“The system’s seven sites illustrate the evolutionary history of reef development and are a significant habitat for threatened species, including the marine turtle, the manatee and the American marine crocodile.”

The UN writes that the “Belizean government deserves tremendous credit” for taking concrete steps towards protecting this unique ecosystem. Marco Lambertini, head of the World Wildlife Fund, also pointed to a public activism campaign that Belizeans undertook to help secure the reef’s future.

“We have seen an incredible turnaround from when the reef was being threatened by seismic testing for oil just 18 months ago,” Lambertini told AFP. “Belizeans stood up to protect their reef, with hundreds of thousands more globally joining the campaign to save our shared heritage.”

The world’s coral reefs are struggling under the effects of climate change. Mass coral bleaching events have become so frequent during the last few years that reefs can’t recover between episodes. Against this backdrop, Belize’s effort — and success — shows that there is still hope for corals everywhere; we just have to work on it.