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How the World Heritage Convention Could Save More Wilderness

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has released a study showing that 1.8 percent of wilderness areas are covered under World Heritage protection—and how much more can be done.
Stonehenge, built between 3,000 B.C.E. and 1,600 B.C.E., attracts around 900,000 visitors a year, with 70 percent of those from overseas.

Stonehenge, built between 3,000 B.C.E. and 1,600 B.C.E., attracts around 900,000 visitors a year, with 70 percent of those from overseas.

The 41st session of the World Heritage Committee recently convened in Krakow, Poland, drawing participants from 21 member states, 170 observer nations, and a multitude of non-governmental organizations. The July 2–12 conference aimed to assess how conservation is faring at 154 UNESCO World Heritage sites, and consider the inclusion of 33 nominated sites.

Since its inception in the 1970s, the UNESCO World Heritage Convention has officially recognized 1,052 sites of cultural or ecological importance around the planet. They include diverse locations, from the Sundarbans mangroves that straddle India and Bangladesh to the Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam in Afghanistan to Brazil's Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves.

Making the list as a World Heritage site can help provide a location with increased protection and attention. For instance, data from the University of Maryland shows areas included in the Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves site experienced far less tree cover loss than land outside its bounds. Potential environmental threats to the Sundarbans from an upstream power plant currently under construction resulted in a visit by a UNESCO mission and a report urging the plant be relocated to a less ecologically sensitive area (this recommendation, however, has not been heeded and plant construction is continuing).

The potential environmental protection benefits of attaining World Heritage status is prompting the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to advocate for a big increase in UNESCO attention to more wilderness areas. The IUCN is an official advisor to UNESCO's WHC, and conducts independent monitoring of World Heritage sites. In step with the conference, the IUCN released a study on how the World Heritage Convention can more effectively conserve remaining wilderness areas.

The study describes the fast pace at which wilderness areas are disappearing, and how the Convention's success at combining conservation with social equity and biological integrity is helping safeguard remaining wilderness areas and the ecological and human communities that depend on them.

But while the authors laud what the Convention has done so far, they found that many important wilderness areas are currently excluded from UNESCO coverage. According to their study, 1.8 percent of the world's total wilderness area has World Heritage protection. Of this, they write that two biomes—tropical and subtropical coniferous forests, and temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands—have particularly low levels of protection, with less than 1 percent designated as World Heritage sites. Five other biomes are close behind, with less than 2 percent under UNESCO protection.

In their study, the authors write that a more methodical approach to the designation of World Heritage sites could help fill these gaps. They provide two overarching recommendations for the WHC: assess existing sites to see if they're large or connected enough to maintain integrity into the future, and invest in new sites to fill gaps in wilderness coverage.

Mongabay caught up with study co-author Cyril Kormos, IUCN-WCPA vice chair for World Heritage and vice president for policy at the WILD Foundation, to ask him a few questions about how the World Heritage Convention could help improve wilderness conservation.


How does wilderness protection fit into World Heritage?

The World Heritage Convention has always played a big role in helping to protect large, ecologically intact, and iconic areas around the world, both on land and on sea. For example, the Kluane / Wrangell-St Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek World Heritage site, a protected area complex shared by the United States and Canada, is almost 10 million hectares. Both the Central Amazon Conservation Complex and the Selous Game Reserve are over five million hectares. Several marine sites are even bigger: for example, the Great Barrier Reef is almost 35 million hectares and the Phoenix Islands Protected Area World Heritage site is about 41 million hectares.

Although there are only 238 natural and mixed World Heritage sites (the latter being recognized for both natural and cultural values) inscribed on the World Heritage List, this represents roughly 8 percent of the global protected areas estate and an area about the size of India (286 million hectares). So the World Heritage Convention makes a very important contribution to wilderness conservation globally. But the World Heritage Convention could do even more by adopting an explicit and systematic wilderness and large landscapes and seascapes focus, and this new IUCN study explains how it could do so.

How would extending the World Heritage Convention benefit wilderness and remaining intact areas?

Natural World Heritage sites are recognized by the international community as the planet's most precious areas—places of importance to everyone and which we must all work collectively to safeguard for future generations. The World Heritage Convention provides an important added layer of international protection. The Convention emphasizes the importance of the good protection and management of World Heritage sites, and includes provisions for monitoring and reporting by governments, IUCN and UNESCO. World Heritage status is also highly prestigious, raising the profile of a particular site and greatly enhancing awareness of its unique values. As a result of this increased prestige and awareness, it is often easier to raise funds for research and management of these sites and World Heritage status also helps drive tourism.

Which regions are most in need of this protection?

This new report identifies some broad gaps in World Heritage coverage which may have potential for new World Heritage sites—from Amazonia to Central Asia to Southern Africa. But beyond this very broad scale gap analysis, there is potential for creating new large World Heritage sites with strong wilderness values around the world.

Another crucial part of a strategy on World Heritage, wilderness, and large landscapes and seascapes is also to expand existing World Heritage sites, and ensure they are adequately buffered and connected to other protected areas. So this is not just about [establishing] new sites—it's also about enhancing wilderness values in existing sites and taking action to ensure they can be protected into the future.

What about land occupied by indigenous peoples and local communities? What effects would expansion of the Convention have on them?

World Heritage nominations (proposals by governments to inscribe sites on the World Heritage List) and management of World Heritage sites must always fully respect the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples. In addition, World Heritage status and the commitment governments make to manage World Heritage sites to the highest international standards can also serve to recognize community and indigenous rights and can also help ensure community participation in the stewardship and governance of World Heritage sites.

Many of the planet's remaining large, intact landscapes and seascapes are the traditional lands of indigenous peoples and have remained in good condition precisely because of stewardship by indigenous cultures over centuries or millennia. Most indigenous cultures see no distinction between nature and culture and it is therefore more appropriate to understand these landscapes as biocultural landscapes. So a crucial goal is to make certain that a focus on wilderness and large landscapes and seascapes helps recognize rights and strengthens participation in management.

Where would the financing for this increased protection come from?

Unfortunately, the Convention itself does not have significant funding it can provide for management of World Heritage sites. However, World Heritage sites often receive additional resources, partly because of the requirements of the Convention that they be well-managed, and partly because they are of such importance to national governments—as a source of pride and as centers for tourism.

Their unique values also attract research funding as well as international funding from bilateral donors and multilateral donors and from non-governmental organizations. Many World Heritage sites need additional funding—but World Heritage status can provide a significant boost in fundraising efforts.

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.