NGOs call for better protection of World Heritage sites

World Heritage sites are among the world’s most important areas, recognised as being of outstanding universal value to humanity for their natural or cultural values.

There are 197 natural World Heritage sites, covering less than 1% of the Earth’s surface. They protect areas of outstanding natural beauty and habitats for endangered species.

The World Heritage Convention, which was ratified by 190 countries (known as ‘parties’), legally protects designated sites and represents a commitment by the international community to safeguard natural heritage for future generations.

Sadly, despite their legally-protected status, many of these sites face serious threats. Mining, infrastructure development, poaching, illegal logging, climate change and agricultural encroachment threaten to damage the habitats and species that make these places so special.

Humanity’s growing demand for minerals, oil and gas has increased the threat of exploration and extraction in particular. It is estimated that around a quarter of natural World Heritage sites are currently under threat from commercial mining, oil or gas exploration or extraction in and around their borders.

Many World Heritage sites are under threat from extractive activities. Credit: Dave Wright/FFI.

An increasing number of World Heritage sites are under threat from extractive activities. Credit: Dave Wright/FFI.

In response, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has joined forces with eight other leading conservation organisations (African Wildlife Foundation, Frankfurt Zoological Society, the RSPB, The Nature Conservancy, The WILD Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF and the Zoological Society of London) to call for urgent action to protect natural and mixed (natural and cultural values) UNESCO World Heritage sites.

As Pippa Howard, Director of Business & Biodiversity at FFI, puts it: “Our most treasured natural areas are threatened by exploration and extraction activities; this will undermine the sustainability of global natural resources unless proactive decisions are made by those institutions that have the power to influence policy making at the highest level.”

“Government support for protected areas is waning rapidly, leaving them exposed and vulnerable. A collective voice from leading conservation organisations working with business is critical to the protection of these areas.

“Together we need to draw a line in the sand; we need to stop what should never have been permitted in the first place.”

“Fulfil your obligations”

The joint statement, which was presented yesterday at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, urges parties to the World Heritage Convention to fulfil their obligations to protect World Heritage sites from extractive activities.

In particular, the statement urges parties to cancel existing mining, oil and gas concessions that overlap with World Heritage sites.

It also calls for the adoption and implementation of ‘no-go’ and ‘no-impact’ policies by extractive companies, industry groups and financial institutions for exploration and extraction in and around World Heritage sites.

In this context, a ‘no-go’ policy indicates a commitment by a company not to carry out or support extractive activities within the borders of a World Heritage site, while a ‘no-impact’ policy indicates a wider commitment not to carry out or support extractive activities that may adversely impact such sites.

Although some extractive companies have made ‘no-go’ or ‘no-impact’ commitments, many others have yet to follow suit. It is important that other key stakeholders outside the private sector also take action to protect these sites.

The World Parks Congress is expected to bring together over 5,000 people, including the most important and influential actors in conservation, to discuss the future of the global protected areas system. It is hoped the joint statement will contribute towards the protection of our irreplaceable World Heritage.

Read the Press Release [downloads as PDF].