The World heritage Convention began in 1972 and is focused on protecting natural and cultural sites of outstanding universal value. By signing the Convention, national Governments undertake to: “conserve not only the World Heritage sites situated on its territory, but also to protect its national heritage. The States Parties are encouraged to integrate the protection of the cultural and natural heritage into regional planning programmes, set up staff and services at their sites, undertake scientific and technical conservation research and adopt measures which give this heritage a function in the day-to-day life of the community” (UNESCO World Heritage Centre).
Put simply, once a site is accepted, the national Government pledges to protect it for the rest of the world (because of its ‘outstanding universal value’) and other nations pledge to support the protection (for example, in poverty stricken areas, wealthy countries may provide economic support for protection, or technical/scientific expertise). Of course, from time to time, support is needed, and from time to time pressure needs to be put on Governments who threaten these sites for whatever reason.
Some sites are put on a ‘World Heritage in Danger’ list, which allows UNESCO to take immediate steps to intervene in whatever way it can so as to try and protect the site. Typically, natural disasters, political instability or inappropriate development are the main triggers for this kind of listing. A lack of political support for the concept, often favouring unsustainable or inappropriate development trajectories over protection, is also a way-too-common component to all this.
The thing about World Heritage listing is that sites get listed because they are important – not just important in a local, or even a national sense, but important in a global sense. Managing a site brings with it a global responsibility.
Of course this management comes with some issues/problems – the rights of local people and local landholders, the economic transformations which might be needed to move from an extractive economy to an alternative economic base (tourism features large in the ‘alternative economic activity’ category for instance) are examples of this. Unfortunately, a lack of political support looms large in this as well.
The conservative government in Australia appears to be sliding towards the ‘lack of political support’ category with attacks on two fronts:
- the expansion of a deep water port in the Great Barrier Reef, a site which the World Heritage Committee has already asked for a ‘please explain’ regarding other threats (see here)
- the possibility of seeking 74.000 hectares of forests to be annexed from the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (as well as more from a national park) (see here).
It’s worth noting that these moves aren’t just criticised by environmental groups – it’s not the environment versus development/jobs that is so often simplistically applied to these kinds of things. There are plenty of industry groups who are against these proposals as well – businesses who are reliant on the tourism that the sites provide, businesses comfortable with Forest Agreements negotiated to protect Tasmania’s wilderness for example.
How good would it be to see a country like Australia, with an incredible natural heritage, supporting its natural and cultural heritage sites. The Forest agreement in Tasmania might not have been perfect, but it has contributed to the beginnings of a stronger green economy, after many years of ugly battles between conservations and loggers. Middle ground was found, uneasy cooperation facilitated, and now it’s being lost. For the Great Barrier Reef, there are enough pressures there already (which is why UNESCO sent a ‘please explain’ to the Australian Government – it doesn’t need more.
How this will play out remains to be seen, but I have an uncomfortable feeling that we are in the throes of a chipping away of environmental protections. I hope I’m proven wrong.
Another story on the Great Barrier Reef can be found here.