Francesco Bandarin
outlines the threats to World Heritage sites rich in biodiversity and describes what is being done to conserve them

About a year ago, I travelled to five national parks inscribed on the World Heritage List and awarded medals of honour to the park guards for ‘simply’ going to work every day. This would seem an unexceptional act, were it not that the guards were not being paid, and that they work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – a country that has faced two major civil wars since 1996, and is still struggling to establish a stable peace process.

Line of duty
Despite the dangers, the guards risked their lives to protect Virunga, Garamba, Kahuzi and Salonga National Parks as well as Okapi Wildlife Reserve; over 50 lost their lives in the line of duty. All five sites are inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger because of threats to their biodiversity. A massive influx of war refugees to the parks has resulted in uncontrolled deforestation and poaching. Throughout the conflict, their staff continued to go to work, thanks to their commitment to safeguarding the sites for future generations.

The awards ceremony was part of a ten-day mission with a team from the Project on Biodiversity Conservation in Regions of Armed Conflict: Protecting World Natural Heritage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This $4.2 million project was launched by the United Nations Foundation in 2000 and is being spearheaded by the UN Foundation, UNESCO, the DRC authorities, and the United Nations Fund for International Partnerships.

The UN Foundation has been working to promote the World Heritage Convention since 1999. As part of implementing its programme framework on biodiversity, the UN Foundation focuses uniquely on conserving World Heritage sites inscribed for their natural values, specifically those located in areas of important biological diversity. In November 2002, on the 30th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, the UN Foundation and Conservation International announced a $15 million, three-year partnership for World Heritage Conservation, including mobilizing resources towards setting up sustainable financing mechanisms, such as trust funds, for selected sites.

For the past 30 years, UNESCO’s Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage has been a unique tool for bringing protection to ecosystems with rich biodiversity. In signing the Convention, countries make a commitment to protect all their natural and cultural heritage sites – regardless of whether they are inscribed on the World Heritage List. Signatories are encouraged to reinforce their national laws for environmental protection and to formulate management plans to preserve and protect the biodiversity of their natural areas and promote sustainable development.

Key to survival
Sustainability remains the key to both the survival of World Heritage and its credibility. Conservation is by definition long term – not for a year or two, but for ever. So the 176 signatory countries that have signed the Convention have embarked on an ongoing mission. They promise to adopt national policies aiming to give their countries’ natural heritage a function in the life of the community and to integrate protecting it into comprehensive planning programmes. They agree to establish heritage management units within their governments. They establish laws to protect their natural heritage, and undertake both preventative and reactive measures to counteract the dangers threatening protected areas. They commit themselves to developing national or regional centres for training in protecting, conserving and presenting their cultural and natural heritage, and to encourage scientific research in this field. And they support each other through international cooperation and assistance.

Inscribing a site on the World Heritage List is just the first step towards ensuring its conservation. It is then actively surveyed by the entire World Heritage community, from the Parties, governments and site managers to the World Heritage Committee and its advisory bodies: IUCN-The World Conservation Union for natural sites, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) for cultural sites, or both for mixed ones.

There is then a twofold responsibility for caring for the site. The people living near it have an obligation to protect it for both their local, and the international, community. In turn, the international community has a responsibility to support local people and governments in safeguarding it. Poor countries, which often have the richest biodiversity areas, almost always require international cooperation and assistance with designating, registering and preserving them. The Centre helps build international cooperation between developed and less developed countries in conserving World Heritage sites.

Marine nominations
Recently we have been taking a closer look at oceans and coasts, which have so far not received the attention they deserve. Less than 0.5 per cent of shores and marine areas worldwide receive any form of protected status, and only nine natural sites are included in the World Heritage List for their marine features. We are organizing workshops and pilot projects for new marine nominations.
Bravery and commitment to ideals and principles can help safeguard our world heritage for future generations
Looting, war, deliberate destruction, industrial pollution, uncontrolled urbanization, mining, land speculation, unchecked tourist development and natural disasters continue to pose major problems for World Heritage sites. Thirty-five sites (18 cultural and 17 natural) are currently inscribed on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger, including national parks such as the Everglades (United States of America), Rwenzori Mountains (Uganda), and Ichkeul (Tunisia). The danger listing aims to draw world attention to the need to reinforce protection. Once listed, sites generally benefit from more effective national measures and increased international funding.

Successful campaigns
Through the cooperation and commitment of its signatories, the Convention has been the legal instrument behind several successful international safeguarding campaigns. In the 1990s, the delicate biological balance of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands was threatened by excessive fishing and the introduction of alien plant and animal species. The World Heritage Committee seriously considered adding the islands to the List of World Heritage in Danger, but the Government took immediate action and in 1998 enacted a Special Galapagos Law to improve conservation in the islands and surrounding waters.

In 1999, the World Heritage community campaigned against a plan for enlarging an existing salt factory to commercial scale in the last pristine birthing lagoon for the Pacific grey whale, Laguna San Ignacio in El Vizcaíno Bay on Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, which is also home to many other endangered species. The World Heritage Committee forewarned the Mexican Government of the threats, and it in turn refused permission for the saltworks.

Over the last 40 years, the World Parks Congress has also aimed to draw the world’s attention to the importance of protecting natural environments. Unfortunately, it often takes catastrophes to achieve this. The decline of the Earth’s resources has indeed become such a catastrophe.

We must raise a red flag for the protection of biodiversity. We must get more people who believe in the cause on board. We need more allies with the passion and savvy to protect our Earth’s fragile ecosystems. More than anything, we need more people to follow in the footsteps of the Congolese park guards, who have shown how bravery and commitment to ideals and principles can help safeguard our world heritage for future generations

Francesco Bandarin is Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

PHOTOGRAPH: United Nations Foundation


754 sites are currently inscribed on the World Heritage List: 582 are inscribed for their cultural values; 149 fall under the natural criteria; and 23 are inscribed for both their natural and cultural features. Roughly half of the natural sites were included for their outstanding biodiversity value. The World Heritage Convention defines such sites as containing ‘the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation’.

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Biological backbone | Benefits beyond boundaries | Common inheritance | Beauty or beast? | Wonders of the world | Protecting heritage | People | Parks and participation | At a glance: Protected Areas | Profile: Harrison Ford | Scorecard, catalyst, watershed | Coral Reef Fund | Coral jewels | Reef knots | Brief window for biodiversity | Books & products | Conservation amid conflict | News | Green, red or black? | Keeping faith with nature | Make parks not war

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on WSSD, 2002
Issue on Biological Diversity, 2000
Issue on Culture, Values and the Environment, 1996

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: