Belize is located on the Caribbean coast of northern Central America. It borders the Mexican state of Quintana Roo to the north, the Guatemalan department of Petén to the west along an undefined line known as the buffer zone, and the Guatemalan department of Izabal to the south. Belize and Guatemala have no defined borders due to the conflict described earlier, which includes over 100 islands in the Caribbean Sea. To the east, in the Caribbean Sea, the world’s second longest barrier reef borders much of the 386-kilometre-long, mostly marshy coastline. The country’s land area is 22,960 square kilometres (8,865 square miles), slightly larger than El Salvador, Israel, New Jersey or Wales. The many lagoons along the coast and in the northern interior reduce the country’s actual area to 21,400 square kilometers (8,263 square miles).
Belize has the shape of a rectangle stretching about 280 kilometers from north to south and about 100 kilometers from east to west, with a total land border length of 516 kilometers. The undulating courses of two rivers, the Hondo and the Sarstoon, largely determine the course of the country’s northern and southern borders. The western border does not follow any natural features and runs in a north-south direction through lowland forests and highland plateaus.
The northern part of Belize consists mainly of flat, marshy coastal plains that are heavily forested in places. The flora is very diverse considering the small geographical area. In the south is the low mountain range of the Maya Mountains. The highest point in Belize is Doyle’s Delight at 1,124 m (3,688 ft).
Belize’s rugged geography has also made the country’s coastline and jungle attractive to drug traffickers, who use it as a gateway to Mexico. In 2011, the United States placed Belize on the list of nations considered major drug producers or transit countries for narcotics.
Conservation of the environment and biodiversity
Belize is a country with a rich diversity of flora and fauna, due to its unique location between North and South America, and a wide range of climates and habitats for plants and animals. Belize’s low human population and its 22,970 square kilometres (8,867 square miles) of undeveloped land provide an ideal habitat for more than 5,000 plant species and hundreds of animal species, including armadillos, snakes and monkeys.
The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is a wildlife sanctuary in south-central Belize established to protect the forests, wildlife and watersheds of an area of about 400 km2 on the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains. The reserve was established in 1990 as the first wildlife sanctuary for the jaguar and is described by one author as the world’s first sanctuary for the jaguar.
Vegetation and flora
While over 60 % of Belize’s land area is covered by forest, about 20 % is covered by cultivated land (agriculture) and human settlements. Savannah, bush and wetlands make up the rest of Belize’s land cover. Important mangrove ecosystems are also present in the Belizean landscape. As part of the globally important Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which stretches from southern Mexico to Panama, Belize’s biodiversity – both marine and terrestrial – is rich, with abundant flora and fauna.
Belize is also a leader in the protection of biodiversity and natural resources. According to the World Database of Protected Areas, 37% of Belize’s territory is under some form of formal protection, making it one of the most extensive terrestrial protected area systems in the Americas. In contrast, only 27% of Costa Rica’s territory is protected.
About 13.6% of Belize’s territorial waters, where the Belize Barrier Reef is located, are also protected. The Belize Barrier Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the second largest barrier reef in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
A remote sensing study conducted by the Aquatic Centre for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC) and NASA in collaboration with the Forestry Department and the Land Information Centre (LIC) of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) of the Government of Belize, published in August 2010, found that forest cover in Belize was about 62.7% at the beginning of 2010, down from 75.9% at the end of 1980. A similar study by Belize Tropical Forest Studies and Conservation International found similar trends in Belize’s forest cover. Both studies show that 0.6% of Belize’s forest cover is lost each year, resulting in the clearing of an average of 10,050 hectares (24,835 acres) per year. The USAID-supported ERVIR study, conducted by CATHALAC, NASA and MNRE, also showed that protected areas in Belize are highly effective in protecting the country’s forests. While only 6.4 percent of forests within legally designated protected areas were cleared between 1980 and 2010, more than a quarter of forests outside protected areas were lost.
As a country with relatively high forest cover and low deforestation rates, Belize has significant potential to participate in initiatives such as REDD. Significantly, the SERVIR study on deforestation in Belize was also recognized by the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), of which Belize is a member.
Geology, mineral potential and energy
Belize is known to have a number of economically important minerals, but none in sufficient quantity to warrant mining. These minerals include dolomite, barite (source of barium), bauxite (source of aluminum), cassiterite (source of tin) and gold. In 1990, limestone used for road construction was the only mineral resource mined for domestic use or export.
The development of the newly discovered oil in the town of Spanish Lookout in 2006 brought new opportunities and challenges to this developing country.
Belize Barrier Reef
The Belize Barrier Reef is a series of coral reefs located along the coast of Belize, about 300 meters offshore to the north and 40 kilometers to the south, within the country’s borders. The Belize Barrier Reef is a 300-kilometre long section of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System that stretches from Cancún at the northeastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, across the Riviera Maya to Honduras, making it one of the largest coral reef systems in the world.
It is the main tourist destination in Belize, popular for diving and snorkeling, and attracts almost half of the 260,000 visitors. It is also vital to the fishing industry. Charles Darwin described it in 1842 as “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies”.
The Belize Barrier Reef was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996 due to its fragility and natural habitats that are important for the conservation of biodiversity in situ.
The Belize Barrier Reef is home to a wide variety of plants and animals and is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world:
- 70 species of stony corals
- 36 species of soft corals
- 500 species of fish
- Hundreds of species of invertebrates
With 90% of the reef still unexplored, some estimate that only 10% of all species have been discovered.
Belize was the first country in the world to completely ban bottom trawling in December 2010. In December 2015, Belize banned offshore oil drilling within one kilometer of the barrier reef and its seven World Heritage Sites.
Despite these protective measures, the reef remains threatened by marine pollution and uncontrolled tourism, shipping and fishing. Other threats include hurricanes, as well as global warming and the resulting rise in ocean temperature, which leads to coral bleaching. Scientists say that more than 40% of Belize’s coral reef has been damaged since 1998.