At the end of the 39th Session of the World Heritage Committee in Bonn, Germany, ZSL’s Dr Noëlle Kümpel reflects on the progress and challenges ahead in ensuring the integrity of our natural World Heritage sites.
I’ve just returned from my first time at the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee, the body responsible for inscribing new World Heritage sites and overseeing the state of conservation of listed sites, to explore how we can better support our increasingly threatened natural World Heritage sites.
Why care about natural World Heritage sites?
The global community has recognised World Heritage sites for their Outstanding Universal Value and pledged to protect them for future generations. Of the 1031 World Heritage sites (including 24 new sites added to the list this past week), just under a quarter are listed for their natural attributes, with well-known examples including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
Although these unique and irreplaceable sites cover less than 1% of the globe, they are under increasing threat from things like habitat loss and poaching, exacerbated in many places by insecurity and civil conflict and driven by pressure on the planet’s limited resources from a growing human population.
Supporting World Heritage sites
ZSL is working across the globe with World Heritage site managers, national governments, the private sector, other NGO partners, the IUCN World Heritage Programme and UNESCO to better monitor, manage and protect our natural World Heritage sites, in areas such as:
- Chitwan National Park in Nepal, one of the last Bengal tiger and greater one-horned rhino strongholds in Asia;
- Dja Faunal Reserve in Cameroon, home to forest elephant, western lowland gorillas and central chimpanzees;
- Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s first natural World Heritage site and its most biodiverse protected area, with flagship species including okapi – an elusive forest giraffe - and a quarter of the world’s mountain gorillas.
Supporting the World Heritage Convention
Given there has to date been relatively little involvement of civil society in the workings of the World Heritage Convention, the first step was coordinating with other civil society organisations and individuals to flag up the thousands of hours of time spent working on the ground and millions of dollars of funding support that together we provide to World Heritage sites around the world. Following a two-day civil society conference, we made a group statement to the Committee on the opening day of its meeting calling for an increased role for civil society in the Convention.
Addressing threats to natural World Heritage Sites
We’re also collaborating to look at the roles of different stakeholders in addressing some of the threats facing natural World Heritage sites today. For example, I coordinated a well-attended side event on safeguarding natural World Heritage from extractives (mining, oil and gas) activities, where I presented the results of a ZSL review showing that threats from extractives activities are outpacing other threats, with over half of all natural WHSs recording extractives as a threat in the past 30 years (see graph below). Participants considered the various reasons for this alarming trend and discussed our list of recommendations for different stakeholders – the World Heritage Convention, States Parties to the Convention, extractives, procurement and finance companies, development banks and standards-setting bodies and civil society.
The need for universal acceptance of 'no-go' and 'no-impact' principles
While the World Heritage Committee has been clear that extractives activities are incompatible with World Heritage, this commitment is not always being upheld on the ground, and there was much discussion on this point in Bonn.
If we really are going to adequately protect our global heritage, we need a much clearer, universal acceptance of two principles concerning natural World Heritage sites, which have been clearly expressed by the Committee:
- First, the sites themselves need to be ‘off-limits’ to extractives and other damaging industrial activities (this is known as a ‘no-go’ policy for companies)
- Second, provisions need to be put in place to ensure that such activities outside the sites do not negatively impact the value for which they were inscribed (we term this a ‘no-impact’ policy).
You can watch me expressing support for the Committee’s stance on this in the recording of the meeting here (jump to 2:24:45 on the timeline), and read more in this statement provided to the World Heritage Committee by ZSL and other members of the African Natural World Heritage Sites Support Network.
What we can all do
We need different stakeholders to work together towards a universal acceptance of these ‘no-go’ and ‘no-impact’ frameworks. A number of extractives and finance companies have made such commitments, led by the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) and Shell in 2003, but these are needed across the board to raise the bar for the entire sector.
Investors have a key role to play in ensuring ethical and sustainable financing of operations on the ground. For example, during the World Heritage Committee meeting the Church of England announced its decision to divest from the oil company SOCO following concerns about its operations in Virunga National Park. We need improved transparency to help such decision-making - an example from a different sector being our Sustainability Policy Transparency Toolkit (SPOTT).
There is a strong role for civil society in supporting this, and, as a first and simple step, we urge you all help us spread the word about the wonders of our shared World Heritage, and thus help to protect the world’s most treasured places.
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