Wonders of
the world

Seema Paul
describes bids to conserve, and bring sustainable development to, natural World Heritage sites

If biodiversity is the measure of life on Earth, natural World Heritage sites provide perhaps the best places to take the pulse of the planet. For they are recognized to contain the most important habitats for biodiversity conservation in the world.

The sites are designated under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention as places of ‘outstanding universal value ... for whose protection it is the duty of the international community to cooperate’.Yet they face many of the same problems that are threatening biodiversity around the globe, including loss of habitat, invasive species, overexploitation and pollution. Their status has often not translated into national or international assistance for their conservation. Many suffer from a lack of resources, as does the United Nations, thus limiting the technical capacity to implement biodiversity initiatives.

Human concerns
The United Nations Foundation focuses its biodiversity work on these sites both to sustain some of the Earth’s most important biological jewels and to promote sustainable development. While working to conserve wonders of the natural world, it uses projects in these sites to promote replicable conservation approaches that respond to human concerns. In the process it hopes to build greater public urgency about the need to protect biodiversity, and to leverage increased funding for initiatives in the field.

The UN Foundation was the first funder to focus on World Heritage Biodiversity sites, and has tripled the resources going to them through UNESCO alone. It has also catalysed tens of millions of dollars in parallel funds from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and is also working with UNEP, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and many others.

Partnerships established by the UN Foundation with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Conservation International will allow the World Heritage Centre to tap into their existing networks, bringing it on-the-ground conservation capacity for the first time. Thus the UN Foundation is strengthening overall United Nations capacity for conservation through public-private partnerships.

The sites and national parks that have already received assistance range from Argentina to China, from a subterranean river in the Philippines to the Himalayas, from Komodo Islands in Indonesia (home to the famous ‘dragons’) to Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest.
World Heritage sites are recognized to contain the most important habitats for biodiversity conservation
In the Sundarbans mangrove forest of India and Bangladesh – home to the world’s largest population of tigers and 260 bird species – the UN Foundation and UNDP have brought the two countries together to develop a joint conservation plan. In nearby Nepal the GEF and UNDP are using a UN Foundation grant to conserve the only existing corridor forest linking the Royal Chitwan National Park, a World Heritage site, to the upland Himalayan forest ranges. Meanwhile in Brazil, partnerships with the Government, UNESCO and national and international non-governmental organizations will enable 70 per cent of the country’s biodiversity habitat to be conserved and will identify and designate new World Heritage sites.

Tourism and conservation
UNEP, the World Heritage Centre, the RARE Centre for Tropical Conservation and AVEDA, the environmentally conscious cosmetics company, are collaborating on a four-year, $2.5 million UN Foundation project to link sustainable tourism and biodiversity conservation in six World Heritage sites. And FAO is developing community-based forest enterprises to promote sustainable natural resource management at two more.

Other success stories are reported elsewhere in these pages. The work to conserve five threatened World Heritage sites in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is particularly important as it could provide a model for conserving biodiversity in conflicts: the Biodiversity Support Programme’s prestigious publication, The Trampled Grass: Mitigating the Impacts of Armed Conflict on the Environment, has already described it as such. The Society for Conservation Biology gave its 2002 Distinguished Achievement award to the Charles Darwin Foundation for, among other things, its UN Foundation-supported work on invasive species in the Galapagos, and the beekeepers project at Mt Kenya has won many awards including a first prize in the Poverty Challenge Expo in 2000 and 2001.

If projects like these can be increasingly replicated, the pulse of the planet will beat a little more steadily

Seema Paul is Senior Program Officer for Biodiversity at the United Nations Foundation.

PHOTOGRAPH: Hoang Them/UNEP/Topham

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: