Defending World Heritage

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This week government representatives have gathered together in Bonn, Germany for the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee. Established under the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), this 21-member body is charged with bestowing World Heritage status on the relatively few cultural and natural places recognized as having outstanding universal value to all humanity, as well as with monitoring and safeguarding them.

WHC Bonn 2015World Heritage Committee, Bonn 2015 © WWF

The annual UNESCO World Heritage meeting is often an occasion for countries to celebrate the inscription of new sites on the World Heritage List, but is also the time when threats to existing sites must be addressed.

Over the past year there have been disturbing headlines about the destruction of archeological sites in the Middle East, and global outrage has been expressed over the expansion of coal megaports near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. But many of the risks to World Heritage Sites never receive this sort of attention.

As conservationists, we are particularly concerned about the increasing number of natural World Heritage Sites that are coming under threat from the extractive industries, namely oil, gas and mining. There are fewer than 230 natural and mixed sites listed by UNESCO, yet according to IUCN’s World Heritage Outlook, 54 are at risk from oil, gas and mining operations. Many more are threatened by large-scale infrastructure projects such as road construction, port expansion and pipelines.

We are not dealing with a handful of isolated cases; the threat of industrial destruction is spreading like an epidemic over natural World Heritage Sites. It seems that some companies and governments are prepared to go to the ends of the earth in the pursuit of short-term gains.

The preservation of these places is important not only in terms of the value of their natural capital, but it is also crucial for the livelihoods and future prosperity of people who depend, directly or indirectly, on them.

¬© WWFCEO of WWF-Australia, Dermot O’Gorman and Christoph Heinrich, Executive Director of Conservation, WWF-Germany deliver petition signatures to UNESCO World Heritage Committee Chair, Professor Maria Bohmer ¬© WWF

UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee have a long-standing position against oil, gas and mineral exploration and exploitation in natural sites. But stating and restating this position has not deterred governments from opening up more and more properties to potentially destructive activities. Similarly, it has not prevented certain companies from going into these places seeking to extract their resources, despite their protected status.

It is no longer enough only to address these emerging threats one site at a time. UNESCO, the World Heritage Committee, member states, responsible businesses and concerned civil society groups like ours must unite to address the underlying failures of governance and corporate behavior that allow these threats to arise and to persist. It is time to formalize what until now has been only a de facto prohibition against extractive operations in World Heritage Sites; they must become off limits areas for the most destructive industrial activities.

In Bonn, the World Heritage Committee will go through sites one by one and we will hear repeated concerns expressed about industrialization inside World Heritage boundaries. But concern is not enough. When a country nominates a site and it is inscribed on the World Heritage List, that country is obliged to protect, preserve and promote it for future generations. Similarly, we all ‚Äď governments, businesses, investors and global citizens ‚Äď have a responsibility to respect the protections afforded to these places that have outstanding value to us all.


Susan Brown, Director, Global and Regional Policy, WWF International


Zach Abraham, Director, Global Campaigns, WWF International

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