In Age of Upheaval, World Heritage Sites Offer Model for Conservation

© CI/photo by John Martin

What do the Everglades, the Parthenon and the City of Quito, Ecuador, have in common?

They’re all UNESCO World Heritage Sites — places designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as being of exceptional cultural or natural significance.

These places also can serve as models for nature conservation.

Created in 1972, the World Heritage Convention recognizes — and seeks to protect — the most striking natural and cultural sites on our planet, sites that are of importance to all of humanity, not just the host country. Simply put, these areas are “the best of the best” — 197 natural sites, 779 cultural sites and 31 mixed natural/cultural sites in 160 countries — ranging from tourist magnets such as Yellowstone National Park and the Taj Mahal to places as remote as the steppes of Kazakhstan.

I have been fortunate to visit more than 150 of these wonderful places, and I have been trying to stimulate the concept of “life-listing” World Heritage sites rather in the same way that passionate bird-watchers travel around the world to add species to their lists. In so doing, we could perhaps encourage more visitation to these sites — and get people everywhere more excited about ensuring their survival.

Conservation International has had a long involvement with World Heritage Sites and was instrumental in the creation and listing of the Central Suriname Nature Reserve (said to be the most pristine of all the sites) in 2000, and the 2010 listing of Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area, a California-sized marine protected area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the largest and deepest of the World Heritage Sites.

‘No-go’ Zones?

But as can be expected, given the diversity and distribution of these sites, it’s not all good news.

Recently, unrest in Syria and Iraq has resulted in the purposeful destruction of a number of World Heritage Sites by militants, robbing the world of archaeological treasures thousands of years old. Other willful damage is playing out in sites such as Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been besieged by unregulated oil drilling, charcoal production and poaching. Two World Heritage Sites, in Germany and Oman, have even been de-listed after governments decided to pursue infrastructure or resource extraction in those areas.

Many sites, though, suffer a more passive enemy: neglect. Sadly, only a handful of countries take full advantage of having World Heritage Sites within their borders. Places that could be leveraged for tourism, educational and research opportunities instead are allowed to languish, preventing humanity from benefiting from the lessons in natural and cultural conservation they could provide.

This only brings to the forefront the importance of the World Heritage concept and the need to focus on protecting these sites in this time of rapid change in global society. Because in many ways, these sites should be a model for conservation: If we fail to conserve these truly special parts of our planet, be they natural or cultural, how can there be any hope that we can save the rest of our natural world or our great cultural icons?

Natural World Heritage Sites simply must be considered “no-go zones,” open only to non-invasive, locally appropriate tourism and research, and closed to any extractive and exploitative uses like mining or large-scale agribusiness. What we do with these sites in the years to come will truly be a testament to our commitment as a global society.


For our part, we will soon be publishing a new, lavishly illustrated book, Earth’s Legacy: Natural World Heritage — edited by Cyril Kormos, Tim Badman of IUCN, Bastian Bertzky and myself — that is intended to celebrate the natural sites protected under the convention and to stimulate more interest in them. Part of a multi-volume series on nature supported by the Mexican cement company CEMEX and currently edited by Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier, this book is the 23rd in the series dating to 1991. Other titles in the CEMEX series have included Megadiversity, Hotspots, Wilderness, Oceans, Fresh Water, The Wealth of Nature and most recently The IUCN Red List. All of these have been instrumental in increasing awareness of the importance of biodiversity, ecosystems and ecological processes around the world. We are grateful to CEMEX for their continued commitment and look forward to future titles in this series.

Russ Mittermeier is executive vice-chair and former president of Conservation International.