By Susan Lieberman
What do the Taj Mahal, Yellowstone National Park, the Great Wall of China, and Virunga National Park have in common? They are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites, protected by an international convention recognizing that they and another thousand special places around the world are the common heritage of humanity and deserve the highest level of protection.
Under the radar of most media, a fascinating and critical international meeting will open on June 28 in Bonn, Germany that impacts all of us in profound ways. The Government of Germany is hosting a meeting of the World Heritage Convention of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization).
Why should we care? The World Heritage Convention (officially, the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage) was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in November 1972, and entered into force in December 1975—40 years ago this year.
Today, the Convention has 191 member Governments, and is one of the most universally accepted of all international conventions.
The World Heritage Convention developed from the merging of two separate movements: one focusing on the preservation of cultural sites and the other dealing with the conservation of natural sites. The convention links the two with the understanding that the “…deterioration or disappearance of any item of the cultural or natural heritage constitutes a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations of the world.”
Today, there are 1,007 World Heritage sites—779 cultural sites, 197 natural sites, and 31 listed as mixed cultural and natural. The World Heritage Convention confers a level of protection that goes a significant step beyond that provided at the national level. Many governments see the designation as important politically, as a matter of national pride, and as a tourism draw. Their joining the Convention and their agreement to listing of sites commits them in front of the global community to preserve these sites and protect them from destruction or degradation.
The upcoming World Heritage meeting will focus on many issues, including in particular “Sites In Danger.” Sites are found to be in danger due to many factors, including armed conflict or war and natural disasters like the recent earthquakes in Nepal.
For example, there will be discussion this year of the horrible destruction to World Heritage cultural sites caused by fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Everything must be done to protect these special places that are a part of our collective cultural heritage.
But the world’s natural World Heritage sites are also part of our collective heritage, which is why they can be listed as in danger due to urgent threats like wildlife trafficking and extractive industries such as oil and gas exploration and exploitation and mining. Destruction of these irreplaceable treasures is just as horrible as destruction of the monuments and other cultural sites across the globe. Pressures on protected areas and national parks globally – including at World Heritage sites –are enormous today.
If the Acropolis in Athens or England’s Stonehenge were threatened by development of a uranium mine or a group of oil wells and pipelines, there would be a global uproar. But that is what is happening at numerous World Heritage sites. The Committee of the World Heritage Convention and UNESCO have repeatedly stated that extractive industrial activities threaten the outstanding universal value of these sites.
Yet the threats continue. The global scourge of trafficking in ivory, rhino horn, and other products from illegally killed elephants, rhinos, and other endangered wildlife species particularly threatens World Heritage sites. These include the Selous in Tanzania and several sites in the Democratic Republic of Congo, among many others. It is time to stand up for our common heritage with concern, outrage, and action through World Heritage.
The Wildlife Conservation Society works at 28 of these natural sites. Many are seriously endangered by these threats, which derive from human greed and false prioritization of short-term economic gains over long-term environmental, societal, and cultural values. But fortunately, many do have the full support and protection of their national governments, which would and could do more with sufficient resources and support from around the world.
I’ll be at Bonn working with our partners to help ensure that countries that have signed on to the World Heritage Convention honor their commitments to preserve their listed natural sites and protect them from threats such as extractive industries and wildlife trafficking—for the benefit of all humanity—forever.
As I head to Bonn, I am moved by Pope Francis’ groundbreaking and inspirational encyclical issued last week (Laudato si, “On care for our common home”). In addition to its laudable call for action on climate change, it eloquently states, “Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation.”
“But the cost of the damage caused by such selfish lack of concern,” Francis continues, “is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained. Where certain species are destroyed or seriously harmed, the values involved are incalculable. We can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think that we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration.”
The global community that will come together in Bonn on behalf of our common heritage, both cultural and natural, should heed those words. Rather than bear silent witness to injustices, we must work together to ensure the protection of our precious natural World Heritage sites.
Dr. Susan Lieberman is Vice President for International Policy at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). Follow Susan on Twitter at: @SSLieberman.