The Ecologist meets… UNESCO's Kishore Rao

Can the planet’s cultural and natural heritage be protected during a war? Ruth Styles talks Syria, conservation and natural wonders with Kishore Rao, head of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre

From the magnificent Pyramids of Giza to the wildlife-rich Serengeti and the stunning stained glass of Canterbury Cathedral, the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites is a diverse one, spanning seven continents and 156 countries. Sites include some of the most famous locations on the planet and some of its most magnificent scenery but there’s more to UNESCO’s heritage programme than taking note of the world’s wonders and bestowing UNESCO status upon them. As Kishore Rao, director of UNESCO’s Paris-based World Heritage Centre and expert on natural sites emphasises, the driving force behind UNESCO’s work is conservation.

‘When the World Heritage Convention was adopted by the general conference of UNESCO [in 1972], it was avant garde,’ says Rao. ‘Even at that stage it was recognised that there are these areas, both cultural and natural, which need to be protected for all time and that is the unique advantage that [UNESCO] has. If you are protecting natural sites, you are obviously protecting ecosystems, you’re protecting species, you’re protecting outstanding natural places, you’re protecting outstanding geological sites, but at the time there are also cultural sites, which are outstanding: monuments, buildings, world heritage cities, cultural landscapes, you name it, industrial sites of heritage value.’ One of the most interesting aspects of UNESCO is its broad brush approach to conservation, which for many is perceived as something applied purely to nature. Not true says Rao, who argues that the unique cultural legacy left by the world’s ancient monuments entitles them to the same degree of care as the planet’s natural sites. What’s more, he adds, the benefits for humanity in general are the same.

‘The benefits [of conserving nature and monuments] are the same,’ he explains. ‘We are protecting our legacy; our heritage, our history, our identity and the benefits also flow because of tourism to these sites. People visiting these sites appreciate different cultures, they develop understanding of cultures - it promotes a mutual understanding, which is so important in building peace ultimately. You know, you travel to a World Heritage Site in other parts of the world and you try and learn more about their culture. You appreciate that culture and develop a better understanding and respect.’ Understanding and respect for other cultures are one thing but not everyone has signed up. 188 countries are signatories to the World Heritage Convention but as Rao explains, a few remain outside. ‘At the moment there are about seven countries who haven’t ratified [the convention],’ says Rao. ‘In the Latin America and Caribbean regions, it is the Bahamas. On the African continent it is Somalia, in Asia it is Singapore and the Pacific Island countries.’

While the presence of Somalia, the world’s premier failed state, on the list of non-signatories comes as no surprise, what does staying outside of UNESCO mean for the likes of the Bahamas – home to some of the most stunning marine areas on the planet? ‘Of course, World Heritage recognises exceptional sites that need to be protected but apart from designated sites, there are other cultural and national heritage sites, which should be protected. There are over 100,000 protected areas in the world: natural protected areas, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, nature reserves. But not all of them are World Heritage Sites. In fact there are only 183 natural World Heritage Sites, so it doesn’t mean that the others are not being conserved; they are being protected through national legislation and through other programmes for their conservation.’

UNESCO’s track record of conservation is impressive, as are the lengths the organisation will go to in order to protect designated sites. Among the most famous is the 1968 removal of the entire Abu Simbel temple complex to higher ground, after the construction of the Aswan dam by the Egyptian government. At risk of being lost under the waters of Lake Nasser, UNESCO raised $80 million from 50 different governments to pay for Ramesses the Great’s famous temple to be removed and reconstructed well above the floodwaters. And that work continues.

I ask about the sites in Syria and Afghanistan, which between them, are home to eight UNESCO listed locations, including the ancient city of Jam (Afghanistan) and the historic Crac des Chevaliers crusader castle in Syria. ‘We will intervene when there is a natural disaster or war,’ says Rao. ‘We work with the country concerned so that in times of such disturbance both man-made and natural heritage sites are protected. For example, in Libya when the NATO air operations were going on, we provided them with all the geographical co-ordinates to ensure that none of these sites were hit. In fact, under the 1954 Hague Convention, it is the obligation of the countries who are signatories to the convention to ensure that during conflict heritage sites are not adversely effected. So, we do intervene in such cases and make sure that sites are not damaged.’

But I wonder, how can UNESCO possibly enforce the Hague Convention, particularly in a country like Syria, where the situation is fast-moving and where the Government shows little sign of respecting international law? ‘There are no air operations and things like that happening, but we have alerted the authorities concerned in Syria,’ says Rao. ‘We said that we know that there are disturbances going on and please make sure that your World Heritage Sites, the six on the list, are not affected by these kinds of activities that are causing disturbance.’ But doesn’t it feel a bit wrong to work with a government such as Assad’s? ‘We have to work with the countries concerned who are parties to the conflict,’ Rao rejoins before continuing: ‘During the flood in Thailand we immediately offered to help out and see what protective measures could be adopted and if they [the sites] are damaged we try to mobilise both technical and financial assistance to make possible the situation of any such natural disaster. So we do intervene in a lot of conflict and post-conflict and post-disaster situations. We mobilise a lot of resources to bring these sites back to normal.’

Conflict notwithstanding, UNESCO’s work has done much to protect and preserve sites across the world, with a beneficial knock on effect for surrounding areas. These benefits come in the shape of tourism but also in encouraging governments to do a proper job of protecting both natural and cultural sites. ‘I would say that [UNESCO listing] has a positive effect in the sense that good government practices are influenced by World Heritage Sites, as [has happened] in many countries,’ says Rao. ‘There is a spin-off benefit for other heritage sites.’ So of the 936 World Heritage Sites, which is his favourite? ‘That’s like asking somebody ‘which is your favourite child?’, exclaims Rao. ‘It falls in the same category. Each site has its own characteristic and exceptional value. You can’t compare the Great Barrier Reef with Macchu Picchu or the Taj Mahal. Each has it’s own outstanding universal value. That’s why they are so exceptional in their values, so it’s very difficult to say which is my favourite one.’ But if you could only name one? Is there one nobody should miss? Rao isn’t having it. ‘I mean you would go to the nearest one,’ he says. ‘It depends on the money factor so you would go to the nearest one and not to the other side of the world.’ Which was the last one he visited? ‘The very last one would be, a couple of weeks ago I was in Japan to celebrate the addition of Hiraizumi [a group of temples and gardens that recognise the ‘pure land’ and the Buddhist tradition]. And what did he think of it? ‘I think it was, obviously, outstanding, as are the other sites.’


'The World's Heritage: the bestselling guide to the most extraordinary places' (£20, Collins) is out this month. For more information, see

Photos: The Acropolis appears courtesy of Michael Avory and the Grand Canyon courtesy of Anton Foltin


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