for National Geographic News
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What do the great Pyramids of the Giza plateau, lions of the Serengeti plain, treasures of the Vatican, and pristine cayes of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System have in common? These irreplaceable wonders belong not to any one nation but to all humankind as internationally protected sites of "outstanding universal value." That, at least, is the guiding principal behind the World Heritage Convention, a treaty administered by the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for the protection of our common natural and cultural inheritance.
A modern day successor to the 5th-century Greek scholar Herodotus' famed Seven Wonders of the World, today's official World Heritage List covers both natural and cultural sites from every corner of the globe. Inscription on the list brings the backing of 175 nations that have ratified the treaty to a site's protection.
Listing Brings Benefits
Making the list is not an easy task. A nation must actively and aggressively promote a potential site for inclusion under the convention. Beyond demonstrating a site's "outstanding universal value," a country must define the boundaries of the site, enact protective legislation, and provide a detailed long-term management plan. Only a handful make the cut each year.
What's the payoff?
The small Central American nation of Belize had seven areas of its barrier reefthe second largest in the worldlisted in1996. The reef provides habitat for a diverse array of species, including threatened marine turtles, manatees, and the American saltwater crocodile. The site is at risk from over-fishing, development, reef damage, pollution, and global warming.
Conservationists say the international backing of the World Heritage Convention is a valuable aid in promoting conservation initiatives, a boon for tourism, and a source of national pride.
"Listing the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System under the World Heritage Convention has placed this little country with a population of only 250,000 on the map," said Julianne Robinson, a marine biologist with the Belize Audubon Society and a former manager of several marine protected areas for Belize's World Heritage Site.
Janet Gibson, a regional coordinator of marine programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the designation of the Belize Barrier Reef System as a World Heritage Site "has raised the profile of the marine reserve network both nationally and internationally."
"The designation helps to preserve the reserves by providing a sort of 'extra layer of protection' from any change in their status," she said.
Conservationists say global recognition has encouraged Belizeans to take a more active role in protecting their natural heritage. Robinson noted, for example, that the high-profile status has inspired local fishermen to join in the international effort to protect marine resources.
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