Expanding UNESCO’s role in biodiversity conservation

Of 228 World Heritage sites, 63 overlap with large-scale wilderness areas. Though that’s an impressive 28%, it seems like there should be more overlap between the sites protected by UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention (“the convention”) and important sites for biodiversity conservation. While the convention isn’t solely concerned with the world’s natural heritage – it also concerns itself with the planet’s cultural heritage – it seems, at first glance, off balance.

Indeed, an IUCN study conducted in 2013 found that at least two of 24 “global scale wilderness areas” were missing from the convention’s list, and that another eight of them have UNESCO protections covering less than 1% of their total area. That’s why a group of researchers led by IUCN’s Cyril F. Kormos have argued recently in the journal Conservation Letters that the convention ought to take the value of wilderness into account by expanding its protections in certain areas.

The idea behind the convention was a decision by the Egyptian government to build the Aswan High Dam in the 1950s. It was then that UNESCO campaigned to protect the archaeological sites, like the temples of Abu Simbel, which would have been flooded. Research in the valleys to be flooded accelerated, and the Abu Simbel and Philae temples were dismantled and re-assembled on higher ground. The international effort to preserve these cultural treasures – $80 million was provided by 50 countries – eventually led to the formation of the World Heritage Convention. Later, in 1972, the IUCN and UNESCO combined their efforts, which ultimately led UNESCO to incorporate nature conservation into their mission.

Two important wilderness landscapes that enjoy protection by UNESCO thanks to their inclusion as World Heritage sites are the Okavango Delta in Africa (2 million hectares) and parts of the Amazon basin (5.3 million hectares). But vast swaths of our planet’s dwindling wilderness do not enjoy such protections, including the entire continent of Antarctica, much of Australia, parts of Canada, Russia, and Greenland, and nearly all of the Arabian Peninsula. Only 1.4% of American deserts are designated as heritage sites, and the Sahara desert only fares a smidge better, with 1.5% of it designated as a world heritage site.

What the new approach they propose would attempt to account for are the dynamic ways in which ecosystems, and the animals that live in those systems, interact. Indeed, one of the current requirements for determining a site’s eligibility for inclusion on the World Heritage list is its integrity. That means, “it must be in good condition and must contain all the elements needed to represent its outstanding universal value,” says Kormos.

But the integrity of many sites, including those currently included on the list, depends on biodiversity that requires large, connected landscapes. For example, many North American World Heritage sites include grizzly bear habitat, and bears require large, interconnected territories to thrive. If a landscape is deprived of large predators like grizzly bears, the entire ecosystem can become disrupted, diminishing the site’s “universal value,” another requirement for listing.

The convention does currently have some tools that can be used to increase wilderness protection, such as by creating buffer zones around sites. The Okavango Delta has a 2.3 million hectare buffer zone, larger than the site itself. Or a series of individual sites can be linked, one after the other. In Madagascar, a series of six world heritage sites together cover nearly half a million hectares of the island’s rainforests. And governments could work together on “twinned” sites, which may be geographically distinct but biologically connected. For example, Mauritania has an agreement with the Wadden Sea World Heritage site (administered by Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands) to protect the migratory pathways that birds use along the eastern Atlantic. Both locations include important gathering sites for the birds.

While existing tools such as these might be useful, they are not explicitly focused on wilderness. That’s why the researchers propose a new mechanism under the convention: a “World Heritage Wilderness Complex.” These are networks of World Heritage sites, other protected areas, and buffer zones that have demonstrated connectivity between them. The idea is to use World Heritage sites as nucleation points for expanding protections around and between them. While the other parts of these proposed landscapes would not formally be recognized as a World Heritage site, they would enjoy certain protections by being included in the broader Wilderness Complex. The researchers argue that implementing this mechanism would “constitute a logical extension of existing wilderness conservation efforts under the Convention, and enable the Convention to show leadership in connectivity conservation practice.”

While a UNESCO-focused approach to conservation may not necessarily be the answer to the world’s biodiversity problems, the World Heritage Convention is already a well-respected mechanism for facilitating international cooperation. That factor alone makes this proposal worth considering. – Jason G. Goldman | 16 September 2015

Source: Kormos, Cyril F., et al. (2015). A Wilderness Approach under the World Heritage Convention. Conservation Letters. DOI: 10.1111/conl.12205.

Header image: A grizzly bear, a key component of many North American wilderness sites, via shutterstock.com