With Belize banning all oil exploration practices, its local barrier reef is now off the UNESCO World Heritage’s list of endangered areas. The massive reserve system, which is imperative to the Central American country’s economy and livelihood, has made a tremendous recovery just months after the ban was put in place.

The Belize Barrier Reef consists of seven segments that are home to over 1,400 sea animal species. It’s the second-biggest reef in the world, only smaller than the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, which has seen its own share of destruction through coral bleaching. Similar issues have plagued this system, which also affects Belize’s population.

According to EcoWatch, nearly half the people living in Belize rely on the coral reef to survive. Tourism, fishing, and other recreational activities are all valued at “an estimated $200 million of Belize's GDP” - 10 percent of its total. The reef also provides a habitat for endangered species like the green sea turtle and West Indian manatee.

“The reef is critical not only for the tourism industry, which employs one in every four Belizeans, but it also serves as a ‘barrier’ against storm surge and beach erosion, which will only increase with climate change,” Dana Krauskopf, owner of Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort near Belize City, told The Guardian.

Both the Great Barrier Reef and the smaller Belize system are both recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites, the latter being added in 1996. Both of them were also threatened due to construction along the coasts and exploring for oil, which created permanent damage to the coral reefs.

Image: WHC

Instead of letting it disintegrate, hundreds of thousands campaigned to raise awareness of the Belize Barrier Reef’s importance. They pushed for legislation to ban activities that would threaten its existence, which included the ban of oil exploration back in January. Just five months after it passed, UNESCO has taken the reef of the endangered list.

"At time when we are seeing numerous threats to World Heritage sites, Belize's government has taken real action to protect one of the world's most special places," Marco Lambertini, general director of WWF International, told EcoWatch. "We have seen an incredible turnaround from when the reef was being threatened by seismic testing for oil just eighteen months ago."

The Belize Barrier Reef had been on the endangered list since 2009 and was officially removed on Tuesday, June 26th. After the decision was made, the World Wildlife Fund recognized Belize as a leader in making a difference to protect their ecosystem. The country is only the third in the world to completely ban offshore exploration.

Environmental groups have been campaigning to eliminate this practice in Belize since 2006. 25 percent of the country’s exports are based around oil, creating 3,000 barrels per day according to Quartz. However, their argument was the protection of the barrier reef would enforce a stronger economy.

Coral reefs are suffering from bleaching at quadruple the rate of over 30 years ago. Going back to the Great Barrier Reef, that’s seen over 900 miles of destruction over the last two years. Oil exploration is a big problem in the process because it adds carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, warming the climate and creating the bleaching effect.