Tag Archives: world heritage sites

Eradicating Old Cities and their Populations

The fighters of Islamic State…raided the tombs of Assyrian kings in Nineveh, blew up Roman colonnades in Palmyra and sold priceless relics to smugglers. But their vandalism was on a modest scale compared with some of the megaprojects that are habitually undertaken by many Middle Eastern government… Iraq’s government began to build the Makhoul dam. Once complete, it is likely to flood Ashur—and another 200 historical sites.

Similar archaeological tragedies have occurred across the region, mainly thanks to the appetite of governments for gigantism in the name of modernization…The re-landscaping displaces people as well as erasing their heritage, sometimes as a kind of social engineering….

Egypt’s dictator, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has bulldozed swathes of Cairo, the old capital, to make way for motorways, flyovers and shiny skyscrapers that line the road to the new administrative capital he is building. To ease congestion he has scythed a thoroughfare named Paradise through the City of the Dead, a 1,000-year-old necropolis that is a un-designated world heritage site. Hundreds of tombs were destroyed. He has turfed out tens of thousands of people from their homes in Boulaq, along the Nile, calling it slum clearance. This was where Cairo’s old port prospered in Ottoman times. Instead of rehabilitating it, Mr Sisi is letting property magnates carpet the area with high-rise apartment buildings. Mr Sisi has allowed investors from the United Arab Emirates to build a mini-Dubai on Cairo’s largest green space, a nature reserve on al-Warraq island. Its 90,000 residents will be shunted off, mainly to estates on the city’s edge. Protesters have been condemned as Islamist terrorists and sent to prison, many for 15 years…

Some rulers have security in mind when they bulldoze history. Mr Sisi can send in the tanks faster on wider roads. Removing Egypt’s poor from city centres may curb the risk of revolution. “They know that poor areas revolted in 2011,” says Abdelrahman Hegazy, a Cairene city planner. “They’re afraid of population density.” During Syria’s current civil war, President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian patrons ruined parts of the old cities of Homs and Aleppo, treasure troves of antiquity that were also rebel strongholds, with relentless barrel-bombing….

Excerpts from Bulldozing history: Arab states are wrecking old treasures, Economist, Sept. 4, 2021

Enclosure of the Commons: High Seas

Sunken coral islands, floating rainforests, giant undersea volcanoes or even spires of rock resembling sunken cities: none of these sites can be inscribed on the World Heritage List because they are found in the High Seas, outside of any national jurisdiction. A report launched today by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) explores the different ways the World Heritage Convention may one day apply to these wonders of the open ocean, which covers more than half the planet.  Titled World Heritage in the High Seas: An Idea Whose Time has Come, the reportpresents five sites that illustrate different ecosystems, from biodiversity-rich areas to the natural phenomena that can only be found in the depths of the ocean. Each of these sites could be recognized as having outstanding universal value, a key principle of the World Heritage Convention, where spectacular qualities of certain sites are seen to transcend national boundaries.

The five sites discussed are: the Costa Rica Thermal Dome (Pacific Ocean), a unique oceanic oasis, which provides critical habitat for a thriving marine life, including many endangered species; the White Shark Café (Pacific Ocean), the only known gathering point for white sharks in the north Pacific; the Sargasso Sea (Atlantic Ocean), home to an iconic ecosystem built around a concentration of floating algae; the Lost City Hydrothermal Field (Atlantic Ocean), an 800 meter-deep area dominated by carbonate monoliths up to 60 meters high; and the Atlantis Bank, a sunken fossil island in the subtropical waters of the Indian Ocean…

Although these sites are far from our shores, they are not safe from threats, whether it be climate change, deep seabed mining, navigation or plastic pollution…The report explores three ways in which the protection of the Convention could be expanded to protect these zones in the high seas.

The Game-Changers: oil, gas and geothermal

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has decided to degazette parts of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites to allow for oil drilling. Environmentalists have reacted sharply to the decision to open up Virunga and Salonga national parks – a move that is likely to jeopardise a regional treaty on the protection of Africa’s most biodiverse wildlife habitat and the endangered mountain gorilla…The two national parks are home to mountain gorillas, bonobos and other rare species. Salonga covers 33 350 km2 (3,350,000 ha)of the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest rainforest, and contains bonobos, forest elephants, dwarf chimpanzees and Congo peacocks….

On 7 April, 2018, a council of ministers from the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda agreed to ratify the Treaty on the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC) on Wildlife Conservation and Tourism Development. The inaugural ministerial meeting set the deadline for September 2018 to finalise the national processes needed to ratify the treaty.

The Virunga National Park (790,000 ha, 7 900 km2)is part of the 13 800 km2 (1 3800 00 ha) Greater Virunga Landscape, which straddles the eastern DRC, north-western Rwanda and south-western Uganda.  The area boasts three UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Virunga, Rwenzori Mountains National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. It also boasts a Ramsar Site (Lake George and Lake Edward) and a Man and Biosphere Reserve (in Queen Elizabeth National Park). It is the most species-rich landscape in the Albertine Rift – home to more vertebrate species and more endemic and endangered species than any other region in Africa.

According to the Greater Virunga Landscape 2016 annual report, the number of elephant carcasses recorded in 2016 was half the yearly average for the preceding five years. The report also mentions a high rate of prosecution and seizures. It cites a case study on Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park where 282 suspects involved in poaching were prosecuted, with over 230 sentenced….The GVTC has also helped to ease tensions between the countries by providing a platform where their military forces can collaborate in a transparent way. ..

Armed groups have reportedly killed more than 130 rangers in the park since 1996. Militias often kill animals such as elephants, hippos and buffaloes in the park for both meat and ivory. Wildlife products are then trafficked from the DRC through Uganda or Rwanda. The profits fund the armed groups’ operations.

Over 80% of the Greater Virunga Landscape is covered by oil concessions and this makes it a target for state resource exploitation purely for economic gain.


2015: Until recently, in GVL, extraction of highly valued minerals such as gold and coltan, were largely artisanal. The recent discovery of oil, gas and geothermal potential, however, is a game-changer. Countries are now moving ahead in the exploration and production of oil and gas, which if not properly managed, is likely to result in major negative environmental (and social) changes. Extractive industries are managed under each GVL partner state policy guidelines and legislation. Concessions for these industries cover the whole of the GVL, including the World Heritage Sites as well as national protected areas . Since 2006, Uganda discovered commercial quantities of oil in the Albertine Graben and production in Murchison will begin within the next few years. The effect of the extractive industries, similar to and contributing to that of the increase in urbanization is the increased demand for bush meat, timber and fuel wood from the GVL.

Excertps from Duncan E Omondi Gumba, DRC prioritises oil over conservation, ISS Africa,  July 11, 2018//GREATER VIRUNGA LANDSCAPE
ANNUAL CONSERVATION STATUS REPORT 2015

 

Logging Wars: Tasmania

Bruny island, off south-eastern Tasmania, is a home to the swift parrot. Small and green, with patches of red and blue, it breeds only in Tasmania, feeding on nectar from the blue gum tree, a eucalypt, and migrating to south-eastern Australia for the winter. But the logging of Tasmanian forests has destroyed its habitat…Only 2,000 individuals may survive.  In November 2015  the state government stopped logging on Bruny Island after an outcry over the parrot’s plight. An earlier study by Dejan Stojanovic, of the Australian National University, and colleagues had revealed how logging and land-clearing for farms in Tasmania had left swifts, which breed in the trunks of old gum trees, vulnerable to predation by sugar gliders, an introduced possum…. UNESCO-listed world heritage wilderness area was expanded to embrace the Styx valley west of Hobart, thick with eucalyptus trees thought to be 600 years old. The listed region now covers almost a quarter of Tasmania.

But…On becoming premier two years ago, Will Hodgman of the conservative Liberal party said he was tearing up the deal, concerned that his state’s growth lagged the rest of Australia. He now proposes opening up some protected areas for logging.  UNESCO wants commercial logging in the listed forests banned.

Tasmania’s forests: Saving the swift parrot, Economist,  Feb. 13, 2016

UNESCO World Heritage: Failed States and Kleptocratic Elites

UNESCO’s World-Heritage regime began life 40 years ago, when dozens of countries signed up to the idea that the world’s cultural and natural patrimony was under threat not only from “traditional causes of decay” but also because of “changing social and economic conditions”. Among those who endorsed the principle was the Republican administration of Richard Nixon, which gave remarkably high priority to conservation and the environment. (Since then, America has had a stormy relationship with UNESCO; it cut off payments to the agency last year, under a law which denies funding to any body that admits Palestine.)

In many poorer countries which host heritage sites, the biggest changes since 1972 have been exploding populations and a huge rise in global tourism, combined with a lack of the governance needed to cope with both phenomena. Angkor Wat, a temple complex in Cambodia, and the Inca fortress of Machu Picchu in Peru (pictured above) are often cited as places of world-historical importance where a vast influx of tourists may be causing serious damage. By recognising and thus publicising individual sites, UNESCO and other cultural watchdogs risk harming the cause of conservation, which would be better served if visitors to the country were spread around a broader range of places.

But there are no easy ways to maintain heritage sites in relatively poor countries; it requires delicate balancing acts, much local diplomacy and long-term engagement, according to organisations that work in that field. Even a well-functioning state, be it democratic or authoritarian, will fail to conserve monuments unless local people see an interest in maintaining their heritage and using it rationally, says Vincent Michael, new chairman of the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), based in California. The effort will collapse if cultural heritage is seen either as a pesky impediment to making money, or as something to be exploited for short-term gain. Nor should local economies ever be too reliant on tourism, which can fall as rapidly as it rises….

But in many places where sites are at risk, government either does not operate at all, or functions only in the interest of a kleptocratic elite. In some such places, so-called non-state players (from warlords to private firms to religious leaders) are about the only things that really function at all…

One of the biggest global challenges to conservation, says the WMF’s president, Bonnie Burnham, is that national agencies which control precious places (culture ministries, for example) often have no say over what goes on—in terms of development, transport or sanitation—in the surrounding areas. That is one of the obstacles to conserving Inca sites in Peru…

As part of her agency’s [UNESCO] effort to stop the traffic in stolen art, Ms Bokova  [UNESCO’s director-general]has started a dialogue—a constructive one, she says—with commercial auction houses. Perhaps she should also be talking more to tour operators, and even darker forces, from the conservationists’ viewpoint, like road-builders and mining companies.

Excerpts, The Heritage Debate: Living Treasure, Economist, July 14, 2012, at 73