Heritage in Danger

I’m writing this in a large, darkened conference hall in the UNESCO headquarters in Paris where the 35th World Heritage Committee is meeting. Almost all countries are represented here and all manner of business is being discussed concerning the most remarkable places on Earth. These are the sites which, in the words of the UN’s World Heritage Convention, have “Outstanding Universal Values”.

I am here representing FFI as an official Observer to make a short speech about the World Heritage Centre’s draft decision to put the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra (TRHS) World Heritage site on the List of World Heritage in Danger.  The draft decision is based on repeated visits there by World Heritage Centre/IUCN missions, but particularly the mission that visited the site in April this year.

The reason I came to make my 2-minute speech was because FFI has been active in Kerinci Seblat National Park (one of three national parks forming the TRHS) for the last 15 years working to help monitoring and enforcement, with particular attention to the tiger. The popular blogs by FFI’s Debbie Martyr on the 21st Century Tiger website graphically illustrate the frustrations and successes of the work. Since 2009 FFI has also been working with local partners to facilitate communities in the buffer-zone of the National Park to secure legally recognised rights, and enhance capacity, to manage their customary forest areas.

Perhaps less known is that FFI serves as the Secretariat for the Rapid Response Facility of the World Heritage Centre. Among its grants has been support for the AKAR network, a group of local NGOs in the Kerinci area, to help them in their advocacy against proposals for roads to cross the national park some years ago. FFI thus has an intense interest in the long-term management and security of the area.

The immediate cause for concern is a proposal for three new roads to be driven through the Core Zone of Kerinci Seblat National Park. This was recently reported as an FFI News item.

The reason given by the local government for proposing these roads is that they are needed to evacuate people in the event of an earthquake or volcanic eruption of Mt Kerinci. To route the roads through the National Park’s Core Zone would contravene two national laws regarding activities within the core zone of protected areas, which would have to be amended by the government and approved by Parliament before they could be legalised. In doing so a precedent would be set that would lay any or all protected areas open to the building of similar roads.

But there are already roads available. The trouble is they are poorly maintained and their condition is unreliable – as such are slow and uncomfortable to travel on. They could surely be improved and maintained at far lower cost (and negative impact) than new roads constructed through the steep terrain of the National Park’s Core Zones. Of course, any sovereign government has the right to put its roads wherever it likes, but if they compromise the ‘Outstanding Universal Values’ then those who decide on those values also have the right to withdraw the accolade.

When the discussion on Sumatra opened just after midday, the World Heritage Centre representative described the current situation in a clear and formal manner befitting a UN meeting, and stressed that the threats to the TRHS site have been described and discussed in the various monitoring visits, most recently in April 2011. There were statements by Australia, Brazil, and Egypt and, there was no unequivocal support for the draft decision. The statement from the Indonesian delegation sought to reassure the Committee that it was taking the necessary actions.

The Chair reminded the Committee that being on the Danger List should not be seen as a punishment but rather as a short-term measure for better management, and a significant opportunity to leverage greater support for the site. She added that analysis had shown that the Danger List was an effective tool for improvements.

There was further discussion from Barbados and when it was clear that the draft decision was not going to be passed the Chair explained that she would need formal submission of amendments before she could move forward. We had encroached into the lunch break and the session was adjourned. This did, however, give me time to discuss the current threats to the site with some of delegates on the 21-country Committee.

I managed to speak to about half the delegates on the 21-country Committee. Some were enormously supportive of the draft decision, some were inscrutable and gave nothing away about their views, one was bound more by geo-political considerations than the actual facts, and others told me that they felt that listing the site was not the right move. Those governments without strong ties with Indonesia tended to support the draft decision, and vice versa.

Just before the afternoon session began I spoke to the Indonesian delegation and discovered that the two from the Department of Forestry were friends from other conservation issues I have been involved in. They explained that if the draft decision were passed then it would cause them a great deal of complicated work, that no construction of roads had yet begun, and many improvements to management systems had been established.

When the session re-opened the Chair asked what amendments to the draft decision had been submitted during the lunch break. It was Barbados who led, and their amendments were on the large screens. They were asking that reference to “immediately halt all road development plans within the property” be deleted. The amendment was passed and I slumped in my seat.

But as the Committee was asked to consider each of the 11 paragraphs of the draft decision – including the one “to inscribe the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra (Indonesia) on the List of World Heritage in Danger – no more amendments were proposed. The Chair then asked for any objections to the overall and barely amended draft decision – and no one spoke up. She banged her gavel on her desk and the draft decision had become the Decision. I confess to being amazed because it looked as though it would not happen.

I went over to see the Indonesian delegation and invited the two Department of Forestry staff for a coffee. We spent the next hour or so picking through the wording of the Decision to get a sense of the tasks ahead, and we agreed to meet with a representative from the World Heritage Centre early in the morning to get further clarity. FFI will do all it can to support to the Government of Indonesia to make sure that the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra World Heritage site stays on the Danger List for as short a time as possible.