Saving our heritage... from ourselves

Tourist boats and seals on a Galapagos beach
On the UNESCO Danger list since 2007, the unique ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands are at risk from increasing tourism

On the Danger list since 2007, the unique ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands are at risk from increasing tourism

More sites may be added to the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites in Danger this week, but how effective is this register of global hot spots, and what are the areas that truly deserve international protection?

This week, in the sunny surrounds of Seville, a committee is meeting to discuss two lists. To be added to the first will bring international recognition and tourist income: the World Heritage List celebrates sites – 878 at current count – deemed to have ‘outstanding universal value’. It is unlikely that any government would find anything outstanding about being included on the second.

Compiling the List of World Heritage in Danger is the lesser-known task of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, currently meeting for its 33rd session, its members selected from among the 186 countries that have ratified the 1972 World Heritage Convention. These are heritage sites that require funds, technical support, media attention or special measures to ensure their survival. Natural disasters are the least likely threat; indeed, the problems facing most of the 30 sites currently on the Danger list is a roll-call of humanity’s self-inflicted ills, ancient and modern: war, rampant overdevelopment, manmade climate change.

International protection

UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) launched its most famous international safeguarding campaign in 1959: the relocation of the temples of Abu Simbel and Philae following Egypt’s decision to build the Aswan High Dam. Some 50 countries donated half the $80 million it took to save the archaeological site from flooding.

The same problems persist today. One of the three most recent additions to the Danger list, in 2007, Nikolo-Koba National Park, Senegal, is threatened by government plans to build a dam on the river Gambia at Mako, a few kilometres upstream of the park. The ancient city of Samarra, in Iraq, one of a number of casualties of war, was also elevated to code red in 2007, while the third site, the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin’s ‘little world within itself’, is at risk from tourism, introduced domestic animals and bird flu. It’s understood that the Galapagos will be under discussion in Seville, but unlikely they’ll be removed from the Danger list anytime soon.

‘Once problems such as these have taken hold they can be extremely expensive and resource-intensive to bring under control,’ says David Santillo, senior scientist at the Greenpeace Research Laboratories in Exeter. ‘The Ecuadorian authorities are continuing to make major efforts to eradicate invasive, non-endemic species and curb the spread of disease among sensitive populations of birds, and have redoubled their efforts since the islands were listed as “in danger” in 2007. There have been some success stories as a result, but only time will tell whether they can reverse the decline and find a balance between the increased visibility and revenue that comes from the rapidly growing tourism industry and the measures needed to protect the very natural heritage on which those developments rely.’

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Policing world heritage

Tim Badman is World Heritage special adviser for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which carries out the technical site assessments upon which the World Heritage Committee makes its judgements. He says the Danger list is intended to encourage support for threatened sites through international help and media attention.

‘The ideal is that the state itself volunteers information on which of its sites needs special assistance. We receive advice from a state, community or NGO, gain admission to the site and pass on our recommendation to the committee. We do not undertake recommendations to the Danger list lightly.’

Inclusion on the list has had some notable successes, and may yet see results in the Galapagos. Kishore Rao, deputy director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, points to Angkor in Cambodia, removed from the Danger list in 2004, the Old City of Dubrovnik in Croatia, removed in 1998, and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania, removed in 1989.

‘There has been a lot of effort both nationally and internationally to tackle the problems facing the Galapagos,’ he says, ‘and inclusion on the Danger list has had a salutary effect in implementing corrective measures.’

A multi-faceted challenge

The threats facing natural sites are necessarily of another order to those facing cultural sites. Persuading Egypt to rethink plans for a motorway near the Giza pyramids, or Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to order the rerouting of an oil pipeline on the shores of Lake Baikal is one thing – but asking all countries to limit emissions? Curtail industrial agriculture? Curb development?

‘Countries have an obligation and responsibility to live up to their commitments under the UNESCO convention, but other bodies and conventions – such as the Kyoto protocol and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – have the remit of tackling global warming issues,’ says Rao. ‘UNESCO’s World Heritage programme is about adapting sites to these global challenges, making the system more resilient and looking at what can be done on a site-by-site basis at a local level.’

There is nothing legally binding about the convention. If Germany wants to continue building a bridge in the heart of the Dresden Elbe Valley – an endangered site that will also be discussed in Seville – it may do so despite the threat of being struck off the list. In 35 years that fate has befallen only one site: the Arabian oryx sanctuary in Oman, delisted as a result of Oman’s decision to reduce the size of the site by 90 per cent in order to facilitate hydrocarbon prospecting. ‘Outstanding universal value’ is all well and good, but it may not compete with development.

David Santillo sees the value in raising the profile of endangered natural and human heritage, the access to increased protection and maintenance funding that the designation brings, but finds the initiative necessarily limited in the face of a global threat.

‘Even the stringent measures currently in place within many World Heritage Sites may prove insufficient to protect them against the impacts of increasingly rapid climate change, acidification of the oceans and overall loss of biodiversity,’ he says. ‘Vital regulatory “islands” in a world of overexploitation that they are, we cannot rely on the management of a list of designated heritage sites, however long, in order to preserve the natural environment. Only by acting globally and concertedly to address the unsustainability of human activities, to tackle the causes of climate change and ecosystem destruction at source, can we ensure a future for natural systems on the planet.’

What the experts say…

UNESCO will launch a report at Seville on the subject of World Heritage in Danger – how the designation is used, how it can be used more effectively. In the meantime, the Ecologist asked some environmental experts for their opinion on which threatened sites require international protection.

Dr David Santillo, senior scientist, Greenpeace Research Laboratories, School of Biosciences, University of Exeter
The sites covered by the World Heritage designation are inevitably a tiny fraction of the areas worthy of designation and protection, not just for their heritage value but, in the case of natural sites, for their inherent value as components of natural systems and the complex role they therefore play in supporting life on Earth and providing resilience to human induced global change.

By far the biggest area of the planet overall, namely the deep sea, currently receives practically nothing in the way of international protection, despite being home to a huge diversity of fragile and sometimes unique habitats and ecosystems. It may be time, therefore, for UNESCO and parties to the World Heritage Convention to look beyond national boundaries and designate a network of natural heritage sites in the global commons of the high seas. Such an initiative, providing it were supported by the necessary commitments and resources to police, could make a major contribution to the global network of marine reserves that is so widely acknowledged to be essential to the future of our oceans.

Jonathan Mazower, campaigns coordinator, Survival International
There are many areas of indigenous land that are currently unprotected. This causes not only environmental devastation but also real hardship and suffering to indigenous people. Two key areas are the rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon, currently in the grip of a major oil boom, endangering the existence of uncontacted tribes, and Borneo, where huge areas of tribal peoples’ ancestral homes have been cleared of forest and turned into oil palm plantations. What indigenous people need is not necessarily for these areas to be listed as World Heritage sites, but simply that they themselves be recognised as the rightful owners of their land, in accordance with international law.

Mary Munson, legal director, Center for Earth Jurisprudence
The Florida Everglades belongs on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. There is certainly a consensus it needs a massive restoration effort, yet after millions of dollars spent creating a plan, we have a long way to go before success can be reached, and there remain major threats that the plan does not even address. Many people believe that the Everglades is on the endangered list… and it was [from 1993] – but two years ago UNESCO removed it. This delisting was unwise and misleading. The Everglades restoration plan has not even had a chance to bring back life-giving water flows, since major projects have not even broken ground yet.

The Everglades is also one of the world’s most vulnerable areas to the devastating effects of sea-level rise, since it is made up of such low-lying land. Heavy metals and other airborne contaminants pose a major threat to the sensitive vegetation. Building and water withdrawals in surrounding areas are seeping vital waters out of the Everglades. Decreased water flows in the Everglades are changing the ecosystem of Florida and Biscayne bays. The site should not have been removed from the list; in light of all these problems, it should be elevated to the top of list in terms of attention and public support.

Dr James Cooper, head of government affairs, Woodland Trust
We would like to see more of our finest ancient woodland sites and sites with ancient trees designated as World Heritage Sites. Broxbourne Woods National Nature Reserve is one of the largest and most northerly expanses of sessile oak/hornbeam woodland in Europe, and contains two of the Woodland Trust’s finest ancient woods in its care – Hoddesdon Park and Wormley. It has already been designated a Special Area of Conservation. Moccas Park is one of the finest examples of parkland in the UK, a Norman deer park set in a Capability Brown landscape supporting many ancient trees. It is currently designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and National Nature Reserve.

The real conservation challenge for ancient woodland is in fact to ensure its domestic protection first. We currently have 460 cases on our books of ancient woods under threat – an incredible statistic when you think it is the closest thing we have to the rainforest in this country.

Fred O’Regan, chief executive officer, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)
In 2000, IFAW led an effort to protect Laguna San Ignacio, the last unspoiled Pacific grey whale nursery in the world. Mitsubishi wanted to build the world's largest salt factory right in this middle of this critical birthing lagoon. Located on Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, it is part of the El Vizcaino Whale Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This recognition was absolutely critical to the ultimately successful campaign to protect Pacific grey whales.

The World Heritage programme needs to look at ecosystems unique to the natural world. We are working hard to rebuild protected areas that have, nonetheless, been denuded of wildlife. In northeast India, we’re returning elephants, rhinos, and other animals to Manas Wildlife Sanctuary [placed on the Danger list in 1992], but other, ecologically diverse habitats, such as Tsavo National Park in Kenya, should be considered for inclusion in the programme.




Eifion Rees is a freelance journalist

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