Half Of All World Heritage Sites Are Threatened

The Great Barrier Reef. Virunga National Park. Sundarbans National Park. What do they all have in common? They are all areas of rich biodiversity, beauty and geology and thus have been protected as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This should make them safe from anthropogenic threats like development, mining and logging, however a new report by the WWF has revealed 114 of the 229 mixed and natural World Heritage Sites are threatened by industrial activity.

Whilst you would expect these sites to be receiving the highest level of protection the report found that oil and gas exploration and extraction, mining, construction of large-scale infrastructure, overfishing and unsustainable water use were just some of the industrial activities witnessed across the sites.

Unfortunately World Heritage Sites are often rich with mineral wealth. Virunga Park is probably the most famous example of this, it is as rich in biodiversity as it is in mineral wealth and has become a magnet for militia groups; some of whom fled their after taking part in the 1994 Rwanda Genocide. Civil war in the country has only magnified the near-impossible task set out for those trying to protect the area, making it one of the most dangerous places to be a conservationist.

Virunga National Park. Image by Kim S. Gjerstad

Virunga National Park. Image by Kim S. Gjerstad

Thanks to a feature length documentary, Virunga Park has gained a lot of press attention yet it is definitely not the only site to have been devastated by human interests. Oman’s oil exploration activities in their Arabian Oryx Sanctuary caused so much damage it holds the unenviable title of being the only site to actually be de-listed. By opening up nearly 90% of the sanctuary to oil prospecting, the government also opened up the sanctuary to poachers who used the improved infrastructure. This resulted in the Arabian Oryx population falling by 85% and the site losing its status in 2007.

Of course many will argue that industrial activities are sometimes essential, they can boost a country’s economy and provide resources we all use such as oil. The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are currently pushing plans to reopen their rainforests to logging in order to reap the economic rewards.

It would be foolish however to think that many of these industrial activities would benefit the citizens of these countries. For the Congolese rainforest already being logged, the country obtains a pitiful USD8 million in fiscal revenues from the sector – that’s the equivalent of about 12 cents for every Congolese person.

Okapi at Epulu breeding center

Okapis are threatened by logging in the Congolese Rainforest Image Credit to the Okapi Conservation Centre 

Whereas World Heritage Sites create an income and a livelihood for 11 million people worldwide. In other words damaging industrial activities undertaken on World Heritage Sites don’t only stand to destroy important habitats and endanger species but also the well-being and livelihoods of a proportion of people equivalent to the population of Portugal.

The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System currently supports 190,000 people; that’s half of the population of Belize who rely on the reef for an income via fishing and tourism. However development around the site has been unsustainable and currently threatens the future income of half the country.

“We need to wake up to the fact that people don’t just protect these sites, these sites protect people. Governments and businesses need to prioritize long-term value over short-term revenue and respect the status of these incredible places,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International. “We need to turn away from harmful industrial activities and focus on sustainable alternatives that enhance World Heritage sites, their values and the benefits they provide.”

“Conserving the environment does not hurt economic opportunities, it allows us to build sustainably on these irreplaceable assets,” said Roberto Troya, WWF’s Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Threats to World Heritage sites in places as diverse as Belize, Spain and Tanzania demonstrate how widespread the risks run and should unite us in our effort to protect these essential areas.”

So what do we do? The WWF recommend that the private sector to make no go commitments within World Heritage Sites. As for the public we can continue to pile pressure upon companies who wish to undertake damaging activities within the sites. Something which is entirely possible, the WWF recently ran a successful campaign to prevent SOCO from exploring for oil in Virunga National Park with other 750,000 people signing the petition. We also need Governments to be more proactive in protecting these areas. Industrial activity might turn a short-term profit however it can also cause irreparable damage not only to wildlife but the countries citizens.

Half of all World Heritage Sites are threatened by industrial activity. This is far too many and responsibility must be taken to further their protections.


Featured Image by  Brandon Rosenblum

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Emily Stewart
Owner of Inspirewildlife - a site dedicated to sharing positive conservation news stories from around the world. Zoo Management Graduate from University of Chester
Emily Stewart

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