Half the planet’s natural World Heritage Sites threatened by industry, WWF warns
China’s giant panda sanctuaries, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef among 114 Unesco-listed sites at risk, conservation group warns as it urges countries to declare them off-limits from exploitation
Almost half of all natural World Heritage Sites, including the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries in China, The Great Barrier Reef and Machu Picchu, are threatened by industrial activities such as mining, oil exploration and illegal logging, conservation group WWF has warned.
The 114 sites threatened, virtually half the total listed by Unesco, provide food, water, shelter and medicine to over 11 million people, according to a report commissioned by the WWF. The sites are meant to be protected for future generations.
“Despite the obvious benefits of these natural areas, we still haven’t managed to decouple economic development from environmental degradation,” WWF director general Marco Lambertini writes in a foreword to the report. “Instead, too often, we grant concessions for exploration of oil, gas or minerals, and plan large-scale industrial projects without considering social and environmental risks.”
Unesco – the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation – lists 197 “natural” and 32 “mixed” Heritage Sites in 96 countries around the world, alongside 802 cultural sites.
The 229 natural and mixed sites, nominated by governments of the countries in which they are found, include national parks and nature reserves, forests, coral reefs, islands and coastal areas.
Among the 114 sites highlighted by the WWF, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s biggest coral reef ecosystem, is threatened by both mining and shipping.
In the US, the Grand Canyon Natural Park is threatened by dams or unsustainable water use.
The 15th-century Inca citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru, named a Unesco World Heritage site in 1983, is threatened by logging, according to the WWF.
The report says oil or gas concessions have been granted in 40 of the sites and mining concessions in 42. Twenty-eight sites are at risk from dams or unsustainable water use, a further 28 from illegal logging, two from overfishing, and 20 from construction of roads or railways. Many sites face more than one threat.
Countries are meant to assume responsibility under the World Heritage Convention to protect listed sites within their borders.
“The World Heritage Committee is clear and definitive that extractive activities should not occur in World Heritage sites,” WWF global conservation director Deon Nel said.
“It has consistently maintained a position that oil, gas and mineral exploration and exploitation is ‘incompatible with World Heritage status’. Despite this, about a third of natural sites have concessions allocated across them.”
The WWF urges governments to cancel all such concessions, and also calls on companies to refrain from harmful activities in protected areas, and on financial institutions not to fund them.
The report relies in large part on data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which monitors Unesco’s natural Heritage Sites.
It found that two-thirds of Heritage Sites are important for water provision, more than 90 per cent provide jobs in tourism and other sectors, and over half provide flood prevention services and store potentially harmful carbon.
“Healthy natural World Heritage sites contribute to poverty reduction, help alleviate food insecurity, combat climate change and restore and promote the sustainable use of ecosystems,” Lambertini writes.
Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest proportion of Heritage Sites at risk, followed by South Asia.
“Protecting natural areas and ecosystems is not anti-development,” says Lambertini. “It is in the interest of long-term, robust and sustainable development that benefits people and natural systems, including our social stability, economic prosperity, and individual well-being.”