World Heritage Status a Mixed Boon

Lauri Hafvenstein and Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
February 3, 2003
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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 reef—the second largest in the world—listed 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.

World Heritage Status Can Pose Problems as Well

Although the World Heritage Convention can provide a powerful aid in protection, making the list can be a mixed blessing. With listed status comes international exposure. Tourists eager to see the wonders of a site are quickly followed—or in some cases preceded—by developers and others anxious to exploit the money they spend. Countries like Belize face the challenge to avoid the types of problems a massive influx of tourism and recognition has brought to other World Heritage sites.

Although listing requires detailed tourism and site management plans, often no amount of planning can be enough. Crowds at the Pyramids of the Giza Plateau led to the eventual closing of the entry shafts. Air circulation systems had to be retrofitted in an effort to reduce salt buildups condensing from thousands of human breaths. At Xian, China, site of the famous Terra-cotta Warriors, a poorly situated new museum to handle the crowds may in fact have a negative impact on the site. On the Belizean Barrier Reef, developers are closing in, exploiting World Heritage status a few miles away to sell swamp land to prospective customers over the Internet.

Another problem is that only a government can put a site within its borders on the list. This was demonstrated at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, where decades of war and recent resistance by the Taliban prevented the listing and thus protection of the giant carved Buddhas they eventually destroyed.

With 730 World Heritage sites listed today and more added annually, however, some question the roster's burgeoning size. "Although there are still many sites worthy of inclusion and needing protection, when does the list become so long that it loses the power of its exclusivity?" said Alonzo Addison, a professor of visual design at the University of California at Berkeley and a scientific commissioner for the World Heritage Convention 30th Anniversary events.

Safeguarding Sites of Natural, Cultural Importance

All nations that sign the convention commit financial resources to protect and promote their own sites and to help—when possible—threatened sites around the world. Of 730 sites in 125 countries, 33 are currently included on the formal "World Heritage List of Sites in Danger." The special status provides imperiled sites access to emergency funding. Endangered sites face a myriad of threats, from natural disasters, pollution, and lack of funding to war. The threat of removal from the list can also serve as a powerful incentive for nations to be diligent about protecting their sites.

While prestige and recognition bring many benefits, the World Heritage designation has, in Belize's case, helped in a more immediately tangible way by bringing in badly needed cash for crucial management and sustainability programs.

"It has created funding for the various protected areas that comprise the site," Gibson said. "Several community-based projects through this mechanism are currently underway in Belize, and are focused on reducing threats to the World Heritage System."

Such projects seek to tie local communities to conservation efforts by giving them a financial stake in preservation, such as promoting tourism infrastructure or diving industries rather than commercial fishing. So far, such efforts seem to be gaining steam.

"One of the greatest limiting factors in Belize's conservation efforts has been access to funding and human resources," Robinson said. "It is the hope of many Belizeans that the designation will allow greater access to what is needed most."

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Related Web site

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