Why World Heritage Sites need stronger protection

I have been saddened to see several World Heritage Sites (WHS) in which Fauna & Flora International (FFI) works recently threatened by mining, oil & gas or agribusiness activities.

These include Virunga Mountains National Park (Democratic Republic of Congo), Kerinci Seblat National Park (Indonesia) and Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve (Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire). Virunga is home to some of the last remaining mountain gorillas and Kerinci contains the largest known Sumatran tiger population.

My colleague Tony Whitten blogged last week about his efforts to get Kerinci on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

In addition, three tentative WHS in Namibia – Welwitschia Vlakte, the Namib Sand Sea and the Spitzkoppe – are potentially threatened by uranium mining. These sites host a huge number of desert species found nowhere else on Earth.

And these are just a few examples from FFI’s own experience.

Speaking up for biodiversity

FFI intends to speak up against the lack of active engagement from the World Heritage Committee on the protection of WHS and their buffer zones. We will request that UNESCO strengthens the rules of permitted land uses around WHS buffer zones.

It is simply not clear about what is prohibited from taking place in WHS buffer zones or what obligations companies have if they are operating adjacent to WHS. The World Heritage Centre’s 2009 report “World Heritage and Buffer Zones” does not go far enough on the science, logic or boundaries required to protect the WHS.

It is not excusable for companies to operate in WHS buffer zones simply because there is a failure in the application of legal obligations. The buffer zone protection status should be honoured, regardless of the WHS host country’s legislation.

Engaging the private sector in stronger protection

I would like to engage with the International Council for Mining and Metals (ICMM) and the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association to ensure these bodies strengthen their own rules on WHS and WHS buffer zone protection. ICMM members are signatory to the WHC and are committed to stay out of WHS.

Our World Heritage Sites are meant to be strictly protected for the benefit of the global community and future generations. We cannot let unrestricted business activities, poor legal frameworks and inadequate protected areas stewardship jeopardise their security.

Clarifying the groundrules

Stronger advice must be issued to both countries and companies through the development of clear guidance on landuse and protection within buffer zones of WHS. It also needs to be explained how these guidelines are destined to maintain the integrity and function of the WHS.

This, apart from anything else, should be underpinned by sound science and rational design, based on landscape level planning and cumulative impacts of development to ensure sustainable futures for our natural and cultural heritage.

The interface of Man & Biosphere reserves with WHS and development should form a fundamental part of this debate and the resolution of conservation planning and land management.