Natural World Heritage sites are under threat from environmentally damaging industrial activities such as mining, oil and gas, as well as infrastructure developments like dams and roads.
Some of the world’s most iconic World Heritage sites including the Virunga National Park with its unprecedented biodiversity in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Iguaçu National Park and its spectacular waterfall spanning the border between Argentina and Brazil, and the Sundarbans mangrove forest in Bangladesh and India are under threat.
Despite their status as natural World Heritage sites, governments and the private sector continue to pursue activities in these regions that could cause severe and lasting environmental damage. This is the conclusion of a World Heritage Committee meeting held in UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris last week.
The World Heritage Committee calls World Heritage sites ‘no-go’ areas for the environmentally damaging extractive industry like mining, oil and gas as such activities, as well as infrastructure developments such as dams and roads. As the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) explains, this means that such activities are incompatible with World Heritage status as they pose major environmental threats.
And yet these sites continue to be exploited for their economic value. For instance, a new oil concession has been granted in Uganda along the border of the Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest park and one of the most biodiversity-rich areas on the planet. In Bangladesh, the Sundarbans could be damaged by the Rampal coal-fired power plant project planned near the site.
Large dam projects also pose a threat to natural World Heritage sites. In the case of the Iguazu waterfalls, the dam only affects the site’s aesthetic value. But new and existing dam projects are interfering with a migratory corridor for fish species in Talamanca Range-La Amistad Reserves/La Amistad National Park along the border of Panama and Costa Rica.
The World Heritage Committee convenes each year to take decisions on the action needed to protect World Heritage sites and to add new sites to the World Heritage List.
To remain credible, the World Heritage Convention must do more to secure the protection of Earth’s most significant natural places against these major threats, says Tim Badman of the IUCN.