Not declaring the Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’ only postpones the inevitable


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Jon C. Day, James Cook University; Scott F. Heron, James Cook University, and Terry Hughes, James Cook UniversityAfter much anticipation, the World Heritage Committee on Friday decided against listing the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”.

The decision ignored the recommendation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre — a recommendation based on analyses by Australian scientific experts of the reef’s declining condition.

In many ways, the outcome from the committee was expected. The Australian government fought very hard against this decision, including lobbying all the committee members, as it has done in previous years.

There was consensus among most of the 21 committee members to not apply the in-danger listing at this time. Instead, Australia has been requested to host a joint UNESCO/IUCN monitoring mission to the reef and provide an updated report by February, 2022.

This decision has only postponed the inevitable. It does not change the irrefutable evidence that dangerous impacts are already occurring on the Great Barrier Reef. Some, such as coral bleaching and death from marine heatwaves, will continue to accelerate.

The reef currently meets the criteria for in-danger listing. That’s unlikely to improve within the next 12 months.




Read more:
The Barrier Reef is not listed as in danger, but the threats remain


Political distractions

Last month, the World Heritage Committee released its draft decision to list the reef as in-danger, noting the values for which the reef was internationally recognised had declined due to a wide range of factors. This includes water pollution and coral bleaching.

The draft decision had expressed concerns that Australia’s progress:

has been largely insufficient in meeting key targets of the Reef 2050 Plan [and the] deterioration of the ecological processes underpinning the [Reef has] been more rapid and widespread than was previously evident.

A photo depicting two threats to the Great Barrier Reef: coal ships anchored near Abbot Point and a flood plume from the Burdekin River (February 2019); such plumes can carry pollutants and debris to the Great Barrier Reef.
Matt Curnock

In response, the government claimed it was “blindsided”, and said the UNESCO Secretariat hadn’t followed due process in recommending the decision. It also suggested there had been undue interference from China in making the draft recommendation.

These were political distractions from the real issues. During last night’s debate, one committee member strongly refuted the claims about interference from China and expressed concerns the dialogue had become unnecessarily politicised.

Following the draft decision, the intense campaign to reverse the decision began, with environment minister Sussan Ley undertaking a whirlwind visit to numerous countries to meet with ambassadors.




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The government even hosted international ambassadors from 13 countries and the EU, taking them on a snorkelling trip. And it reported an increase in coral cover over the past two years as good news, ignoring the fact the assessment had cautioned the recovery was driven by weedy coral species most vulnerable to future climate impacts.

This wasn’t the first time Australia has undertaken significant levels of diplomatic lobbying of World Heritage Committee members to gain support for its position.

In 1999, Australia also strongly opposed the recommended in-danger listing of Kakadu National Park, following the Jabiluka mine proposal. This led to an extraordinary meeting of the committee being convened in Paris, specifically to discuss this matter.

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Australia is expected to hand in an updated report on the reef in February 2022.
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More focus on climate change

During its current meeting, the World Heritage Committee approved the draft UNESCO Climate Action Policy, which will guide the protection and conservation of World Heritage sites.

This policy will be ratified at the UN General Assembly later this year, but the fact it’s still a draft was one of several excuses the Australian government made as to why the reef should not be “singled out”.

The reef is one of the most iconic marine protected areas on the planet. Given Australia continues to have one of the highest per capita emission rates in the world, and has more capacity to address climate change than most other countries, it makes sense for the spotlight to be on Australia’s actions.

Aerial photo of part of the reef
Marine heatwaves and water pollution are major threats to the Great Barrier Reef.
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Not surprisingly, climate change was the central issue during the committee’s debate last night. UNESCO is now more focused on climate change than ever before, recognising the “window of opportunity to act” is now.

The delegates broadly agreed climate change remains the most serious threat, not just to the Great Barrier Reef but also to many other iconic World Heritage properties. Venice, for example, also dodged a potential in-danger listing at this meeting.

Rather than making challenging decisions now, it’s clear the committee is simply kicking the can down the road.

Some committee members remarked during the meeting about the need to “maintain the credibility of the Convention” and acknowledged that the world is watching. The spotlight on the reef, and on Australia, will only intensify in coming years.

The government’s own report from 2019 shows many of the values for which the reef was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1981 have declined in recent decades. Yet every delay weakens Australia’s claim it is doing all it can to protect the reef.

Later this year, the next major international climate summit will be held in Glasgow, Scotland, where even more attention will be placed on Australia’s inadequate actions.

An in-danger listing is not a punishment

It’s important to remember that throughout the meeting, UNESCO and the committee made it clear an in-danger listing is not a sanction or punishment. Rather, it’s a call to the international community that a World Heritage property is under threat, thereby triggering actions to protect it for future generations.




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Is Australia really doing enough for the Great Barrier Reef? Why criticisms of UNESCO’s ‘in danger’ recommendation don’t stack up


Now, more than ever, it is important to expand efforts to reduce the locally manageable impacts, such as poor water quality, while rapidly accelerating action on climate change.

These efforts must occur locally, nationally and globally. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is critical to stop the worst of the impacts now unfolding, not just on the reef, but on all the world’s natural and cultural heritage.


This story is part of Oceans 21

Our series on the global ocean opened with five in-depth profiles. Look out for new articles on the state of our oceans in the lead up to the UN’s next climate conference, COP26. The series is brought to you by The Conversation’s international network.The Conversation


Jon C. Day, PSM, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Scott F. Heron, Associate Professor, James Cook University, and Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is Australia really doing enough for the Great Barrier Reef? Why criticisms of UNESCO’s ‘in danger’ recommendation don’t stack up


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Terry Hughes, James Cook University; Jon C. Day, James Cook University, and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, The University of QueenslandIn case you missed it, last week the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO revealed its draft decision to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” — a decision that appeared to shock the Australian government.

In an opinion piece published yesterday in The Australian newspaper, Environment Minister Sussan Ley acknowledged climate change is the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef, and that it “has been through a few rough years”.

She has also suggested, however, UNESCO’s draft in-danger decision is a surprise and was politically motivated. Neither of these claims is credible.

So let’s look at Australia’s reaction so far, and why criticisms of UNESCO’s draft decision don’t stack up.

The poster child for climate change

An in-danger listing of a World Heritage property recognises a decline in the “outstanding universal value” that makes the site internationally significant. It sets off alarm bells to identify the underlying causes of decline, and triggers stronger interventions to prevent further damage.

Ley foresees a negative effect of the proposed in-danger listing on reef tourism. However, there’s no evidence from the Galapagos Islands, the Belize Barrier Reef or the Everglades National Park — all World Heritage properties and tourism hotspots — that an in-danger listing led to any discernible impacts on tourist numbers.

Most tourists, international or domestic, are already well aware of the pressures facing the Great Barrier Reef, but they are still keen to see it. From 2015–2018, more than two million visitors each year used a tourism operator to visit the reef. During 2020, COVID led to significant decline in visitor numbers so this period has been particularly difficult for the tourism industry.

Ley also claimed Australia, and the reef, didn’t deserve to be the poster child for climate change perils. But why can’t they be? The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most obvious examples of the costs of inaction on anthropogenic climate change.

The Great Barrier Reef was inscribed as a World Heritage Area in 1981. And for the past two decades Australia has meticulously documented its ongoing deterioration.

According to Australia’s regular reporting to UNESCO, the major causes of the reef’s decline in outstanding universal value is pollution from agricultural runoff, which has now been eclipsed by heat stress from climate change.




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Extreme summer temperatures in 1998, 2002, 2016, 2017 and 2020 have reduced coral cover and changed the mix of species, altering the biodiversity and other World Heritage attributes of the reef for many decades to come.

Unless global warming is stabilised soon, the reef will become unrecognisable. Indeed, in 2019, Australia’s latest five-yearly Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report projected the future of the reef as “very poor”.

Is Australia doing enough?

Ley also suggests Australia is doing everything it can to protect the reef — but is it really?

UNESCO certainty doesn’t think so. The draft decision from UNESCO, which will be considered next month by the World Heritage Committee, noted that interventions to reduce inshore pollution over the past five years have been “largely deficient”.

Bleached coral
There has been slow progress in meeting reef water quality targets.
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There have been some positive achievements in reducing water pollution levels. But the slow progress in meeting many of the water quality targets is documented clearly in the 2017–2018 and 2019 reef Water Quality Report Cards, produced jointly by the federal and Queensland governments.

UNESCO cites Australia’s poor progress on reducing emissions as an additional area requiring considerable improvement, to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement and Australia’s responsibilities under the World Heritage Convention.




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Does tourism really suffer at sites listed as World Heritage In Danger?


UNESCO has also asked Australia to work with it to develop corrective measures and to ensure the revised Reef 2050 Plan — the overarching framework for protecting the reef to 2050 — addresses the threats.

An in-danger listing is a call to arms to all countries to work together to save the reef from human-caused heating. So the ongoing collaboration between Australia and UNESCO could then enable the Great Barrier Reef’s removal from the in-danger list.

Is Australia suddenly being singled out?

Ley wrote that the Great Barrier Reef was suddenly and unexpectedly “singled out” for an in-danger listing, which she interpreted as a suggestion that “Australia can single-handedly change the emissions trajectory of the whole world”.

However, the dialogue between UNESCO and Australia on the Great Barrier Reef’s protection has a long history. And in making its in-danger recommendation, UNESCO acknowledged Australia “on its own cannot address the threats of climate change”. But UNESCO does appear to have concerns about Australia’s record on emissions reduction.

For example, in 2011 the World Heritage Committee expressed “extreme concern” over the approval for liquefied natural gas facilities on Curtis Island within the boundary of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. A year later, it asked Australia to ensure coastal development isn’t permitted if it effects the outstanding universal value of the property.

In 2012, 2013 and 2014, prior to the annual meetings of the World Heritage Committee, UNESCO raised the possible inscription of the Great Barrier Reef on the in-danger list.

Significantly, in 2017, the World Heritage Committee emphasised the importance of state parties (countries adhering to the world heritage convention, such as Australia) undertaking the most ambitious implementation of the Paris Agreement. This is an important pathway to reduce the risks and impacts of climate change on World Heritage properties.

UNESCO invited all state parties to act on climate change under the Paris Agreement “consistent with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”.

So what are Australia’s responsibilities?

Ley is correct to point out that all 29 World Heritage listed coral reefs, scattered throughout the tropics, are extremely vulnerable to human-caused climate change.

However, Australia is responsible for the world’s largest coral reef system, and has far higher capabilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than other, less wealthy countries.

But Australia’s record on protecting ecosystems and people from climate change is comparatively very poor. And despite being responsible for 20 World Heritage Areas, we have one of the highest per capita emission rates in the world.

The federal government continues to spruik a fossil-fuelled, gas-led COVID recovery, with ongoing subsidies for new coal mines. This support for coal and fossil gas is inconsistent with Australia’s commitments to the World Heritage Convention.

Rejecting the science-based assessments by UNESCO is further damaging Australia’s reputation as a laggard on addressing climate change. Surely, Australia can do better.




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The Conversation


Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University; Jon C. Day, PSM, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Professor, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

UNESCO has always been mired in politics and squabbling, but this shouldn’t detract from its work


Stephen Hill, University of WollongongAustralia’s Great Barrier Reef made the international headlines this week. It was not good news for the reef, described by David Attenborough as “one of the greatest and most splendid natural treasures that the world possesses”.

A report tabled by the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO recommended adding the reef to the list of 53 other World Heritage sites considered “in danger” — a move the Morrison government suggested was motivated by political pressure.

The “in danger” classification matters to Australia since the reef is estimated to support 64,000 jobs and contribute A$6.4 billion to the economy per year.

If the World Heritage Committee downgrades the reef’s status as a World Heritage site, this will almost certainly damage its attractiveness as a tourism destination and thus Australia’s economic benefit.

But why does such a report from this UN agency matter so much? The reason is the World Heritage Committee has significant clout on the global stage — and politics have indeed been an unfortunate part of its operations since its inception.

The Australian government said it was ‘blindsided’ by the UN recommendation to list the Great Barrier Reef as ‘in-danger’.
KYDPL KYODO/AP

‘Clearly there was politics behind it’

UNESCO’s mandate to build peace through international cooperation in education, the sciences, culture and media freedom stems from its founding principles in 1945 after the second world war. The preamble to its constitution declares,

… since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.

Nations are elected to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee at a biennial conference of all 193 UNESCO member states. This committee has significant power — it is authorised to make decisions on behalf of the world. And though the UN member states may complain about its decisions, none can challenge the committee’s independence or authority.

The current chair of the World Heritage Committee is China, which adds to the reason why Australia has protested so loudly at its recommendation.

Australia’s environment minister, Sussan Ley, and minister for foreign affairs, Marise Payne, were immediately on the phone to UNESCO’s director-general, Audrey Azoulay, in Paris, to express their deep concerns. Ley said,

This decision was flawed and clearly there was politics behind it, and that has subverted the proper process.

The head of UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Program, Dr Fanny Douvere, pointed out, however, that the report was a rigorous scientific document with inputs from Australia’s own Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and official government reports on water quality — assessed and analysed by an expert team in the World Heritage Centre.

Furthermore, she said, work on the report started years ago, and the Chinese government was “not aware” of the recommendations being made.

We have yet to see how this altercation will play out, likely at the next meeting of the World Heritage Committee in China in July.

How UNESCO is structured

Behind the scenes at UNESCO, there is a complex play of international politics and UN bureaucratic processes and actions which do, at times, have an influence on the agency’s work.

I was appointed to a senior level within UNESCO from 1995–2005, working in both a field office and at its headquarters in Paris, and I played a central role in the organisation’s attempts to reform and decentralise its operations in the early 2000s. So, I have good knowledge of the beast from the inside.

The first thing to realise is there is a divide between headquarters and the field. Nearly all attention is focused on UNESCO’s headquarters. This is where member state ambassadors have their offices and all the important committees are based. As a result, decisions on international conventions and actions are the province of the officialdom in Paris.

But this is not where the most effective program action happens — this is the work of the more than 50 field offices around the world. And the UNESCO field offices do make a real difference.

In my own work in Indonesia, as examples, we reformed the country’s entire basic education system from centralised rote learning to decentralised open classroom exploration. We also helped the country move from total censorship of the media by helping pass legislation to ensure a free press and built a radio network of 32 independent stations across the country trained in investigative journalism.

Headquarters provided excellent technical assistance, but the field office ran the show and found the funding.

Much of the criticism aimed at UNESCO is focused on its over-bureaucratic structure and poor productivity. This criticism is largely fed by the attention placed on what happens at headquarters in Paris, not at the field offices in places like New Delhi, Jakarta and Maputo.




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Australian government was ‘blindsided’ by UN recommendation to list Great Barrier Reef as in-danger. But it’s no great surprise


Member states withdrawing funding

The second thing to realise about UNESCO is it is a “technical” agency, not a “funding” organisation like, for example, the UN Development Program.

Because funding is dependent on member states, this has real consequences. Sensitive political issues can cause member states to become upset, prompting them to withdraw from the organisation — with their funding.

For instance, after Palestine was added as a full member in 2011, both the US and Israel stopped paying their dues. The US, which accounted for more than 20% of UNESCO’s budget, accrued some US$600 million in unpaid dues.

The Trump administration then pulled the US out of the organisation altogether after the World Heritage Committee designated the old city of Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian World Heritage site in 2017. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, called UNESCO’s politicisation a “chronic embarrassment”.

Israel and the US opposed the move to designate Hebron a Palestinian World Heritage site that was also ‘in danger’.
Bernat Armangue/AP

This wasn’t the first time the US withdrew. In 1984, the Reagan administration pulled out of UNESCO amid complaints about the way it was run and what one American official, Gregory Newell, called “extraneous politicisation”. He decried what he perceived as

… an endemic hostility toward the institutions of a free society — particularly those that protect a free press, free markets and, above all, individual human rights.

Keeping in mind UNESCO’s mandate

UNESCO’s listing of the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” is at its heart a moral decision concerned with minimising the effects of climate change and stimulating member states into action.

Because it is playing out at headquarters level, however, there is the whiff of political involvement. This is, after all, where states play power politics with their memberships, funding and influence.




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But the organisation is so much more when you move away from the glitter of the world’s capitals and into the field. Here, the agency’s business is about building trust and connecting with communities to make change happen.

This is in keeping with UNESCO’s mandate, which is important to remember when attention is diverted to self-interested squabbling among its members.The Conversation

Stephen Hill, Emeritus Professor, Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australian government was ‘blindsided’ by UN recommendation to list Great Barrier Reef as in-danger. But it’s no great surprise


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Jon C. Day, James Cook University; Scott F. Heron, James Cook University, and Terry Hughes, James Cook UniversityThe Australian government on Tuesday expressed shock at a draft decision to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”. But the recommendation has been looming for some time.

The recommendation, by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), acknowledges Australia’s commitment to implementing the Reef 2050 Plan, an overarching framework to protect the natural wonder for future generations.

But the “outstanding universal value” of the Great Barrier Reef has continued to decline.

The draft decision will now be considered at the World Heritage Committee meeting, to be held online next month. The development is significant for several reasons – not least that Australia’s progress under the Paris Agreement is being linked to its stewardship of the reef.

Last year, severe bleaching struck all three regions of the Great Barrier Reef.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

What did UNESCO say?

In recommending the in-danger listing, UNESCO and IUCN cited a 2019 report by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority which found the ecosystem’s long-term outlook had deteriorated from poor to very poor. It said global warming had also triggered coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 – which were followed by another mass bleaching event in 2020.

The report said Australia’s progress on the Reef 2050 Plan “has been insufficient in meeting key targets”. It said the plan requires stronger and clearer commitments, in particular on urgently addressing threats from climate change, and improving water quality and land management.

Among other recommendations, the draft decision called on the international community to “implement the most ambitious actions to address climate change […] and fulfil their responsibility to protect the Great Barrier Reef”.




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‘Severely threatened and deteriorating’: global authority on nature lists the Great Barrier Reef as critical


The 2020 coral bleaching event was the second-worst in more than two decades.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

No real surprise

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s said the government was “blindsided” by the draft recommendation. However the move has been a long time coming.

As noted above, the government’s 2019 Outlook Report documented the impacts and threats to the Great Barrier Reef in no uncertain terms, and identified climate change as the most serious threat.

There were other indicators the recommendation was looming. In 2020, the IUCN World Heritage Outlook listed the Great Barrier Reef as “critical” due to threats including climate change and poor water quality. The rating – the worst on a four-point scale — was a decline from the 2017 rating of “significant concern”.

And in 2018, a report predicted that without major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, all 29 World Heritage coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, will cease to be “functioning ecosystems by the end of the century”.

Finally in 2012, the World Heritage Committee warned the Great Barrier Reef could be placed on the in-danger list “in the absence of substantial progress”.




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Climate change isn’t the only concern

While climate change is a major concern in the draft decision, it is but one of numerous pressures on the Great Barrier Reef. Poor water quality due to nutrient and sediment runoff – the latter linked to land clearing – are also big problems.

The IUCN outlook report said climate change is the biggest threat to all the world’s natural heritage places. In this regard, this week’s draft decision sets an important precedent for the World Heritage Committee. It would seem the committee is now prepared to directly address the issue of climate change, after being less so inclined in previous years.

The Reef 2050 Plan does not adequately address the climate change threat. The UNESCO report calls on Australia to correct this, and ensure the plan sufficiently addresses other threats including water quality.

Decisions by the World Heritage Committee are not binding on any country. Still, we expect the committee’s concerns to result in Australia amending the Reef 2050 Plan to better acknowledge climate change as a significant issue.

The draft decision will be considered at the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee in July, chaired by China and comprising 21 countries.

Two snorkelers
Getting placed on the in-danger list isn’t likely to impact tourism.
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An end to tourism?

The experience of other major tourist destinations suggests an in-danger listing may not damage tourism at the Great Barrier Reef, as some have feared.

Take the Everglades in the United States, Belize in the Caribbean and the Galapagos Islands. An analysis of these World Heritage properties showed no discernible tourism downturn after an in-danger listing. However, if the Great Barrier Reef’s condition continues to deteriorate, industries that rely on a healthy Reef are likely to endure long-term damage.

An in-danger listing is not permanent, nor does it mean the Great Barrier Reef will be permanently removed from the World Heritage list. Currently, 53 World Heritage properties are on the in-danger list; others were taken off the list once concerns were addressed.

The Great Barrier Reef will continue to be harmed until nations collectively adopt more ambitious climate goals, global emissions of greenhouse gases fall to net-zero and sea temperatures stabilise.

Without real and urgent actions at all levels — global, national, and local — the values that make all heritage places special will decline. That makes it less likely that future generations will be able to enjoy these wonders as we have done.




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The Conversation


Jon C. Day, PSM, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Scott F. Heron, Associate Professor, James Cook University, and Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is UNESCO World Heritage status for cultural sites killing the things it loves?



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Tourists take a photo of sunrise at Angkor Wat in 2016.
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Jo Caust, University of Melbourne

Hoi An is a beautiful coastal town in central Vietnam that escaped the devastation of the American War. In 1999, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the charm of its original architecture, river location, and continuity of cultural practices. UNESCO recognition has made it a major cultural tourism destination. In 2017, 3.22 million people visited, an increase of 22% on the previous year.

Authorities have introduced a ticketing system for visitors, but its purpose is to raise revenue and record tourist numbers rather than control them. The streets are relatively narrow. With the influx of mass tourism, some streets are impossible to walk in and the town has turned into an “ersatz” version of itself with all buildings turned into cafes and shops to service tourist needs. Many large tourist buses park for much of the day on the edges of the old town, to disembark and collect passengers, making an ugly impression as you enter.

Tourists on the Japanese Bridge in Hoi An.
Suree Pritchard/AAP

The local Vietnamese have been forced to move from the town’s centre to live on the outskirts. Ironically, while it is an important cultural tourism destination for its buildings, the culture of Hoi An has changed completely due to mass tourism. From once being a lively trading community, it is becoming a theme park.

In Cambodia, meanwhile, Angkor Wat is a major international cultural heritage site. It received UNESCO recognition in 1992. From 2004-14 visitor numbers to Angkor Wat increased by more than 300%. While the local authorities have introduced a visitors’ ticket to ostensibly control numbers (and bring in revenue), there are challenges from “wear and tear” as visitors touch structures and walk on ancient paths.




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The major challenge for Angkor Wat, however, is uncontrolled tourist development around the site. For instance, the construction of large hotels and the illicit tapping of groundwater have affected the water table beneath the temples, which in turn affects their stability.

Tourists at Angkor Wat in 2017.
Mak Remissa/AAP

While continuing to preserve the temples is not easy, the far greater problem is the lack of planning around the site, which has been left to the whims of the marketplace. Ultimately this unplanned development has the potential to destroy Angkor Wat itself.

The impact of mass tourism anywhere can be overwhelming, but it is compounded in communities in developing countries with less economic resources to undertake adequate protection or planning. The town of Luang Prabang in Laos faces similar issues to Hoi An. The local community is now mostly living outside the old town, which again has been given over to tourists and their needs.




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Other UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world are battling similar problems in dealing with mass tourism. The number of people travelling by air internationally has increased by an average of around 7% a year since 2009. This growth is expected to continue at a similar rate.

A river boat moors at the entrance to the Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang, Laos.
Stephen Johnson/AAP

As far back as 1972, UNESCO adopted the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Two more conventions, adopted in 2003 and in 2005, further protect Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Diversity of Cultural Expression. The intent of these was to draw attention to cultural sites and practices to ensure their ongoing protection and longevity.

Achieving UNESCO status is an internationally competitive process. Nations want this recognition because they can promote a place or practice as a unique cultural tourism attraction.

Communities and nations do have obligations when they receive UNESCO recognition. They are expected to undertake various measures to protect the site or practice and ensure proper planning occurs. But while more attention may be applied to restoration or reduction of unsympathetic behaviour (for example, at Angkor Wat the authorities have introduced rules about appropriate clothing to be worn by visitors), the broader implications of increased visitation may not have been considered.




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Encouraging tourism as a means to improve the economic situation of communities can, in fact, destroy their uniqueness and cultural value. With the continuing increase in tourism, the situation will inevitably worsen.

The focus is at present on earning money from the site/practices, not preserving them. Mass tourism can damage sites irreversibly. Communities and countries have some hard choices to make.

Hoi An streetscape: most locals have been priced out of the centre of town and now live on the outskirts.
Suree Pritchard/AAP

With colleague Dr Mariana Vecco, I recently published a research article about these issues. Some of our recommendations for vulnerable sites include:

  • introducing control of visitor numbers as a matter of urgency
  • tighter planning controls on adjacent development
  • querying the use of sites for any tourist activities
  • auditing sites for damage already incurred.

All of this should occur if UNESCO status is to be continued. However, there is also a bigger conversation we need to have – should tourists visit vulnerable sites and practices?

The ConversationHoi An is still a beautiful town but the presence of “wall to wall” tourists mars it. Sadly, as long as UNESCO status is used more as a marketing device than a route to preservation, the situation will continue to deteriorate.

Jo Caust, Associate Professor and Principal Fellow (Hon), University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The UN is slowly warming to the task of protecting World Heritage sites from climate change


Jon C. Day, James Cook University

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has issued its strongest decision yet about climate change, acknowledging the worldwide threat posed to many World Heritage properties.

The decision (see pages 26-27 here), set to be adopted today at the completion of the Committee’s annual meeting in Krakow, Poland, “expresses its utmost concern regarding the reported serious impacts from coral bleaching that have affected World Heritage properties in 2016-17 and that the majority of World Heritage coral reefs are expected to be seriously impacted by climate change”.

It also urges the 193 signatory nations to the World Heritage Convention to undertake actions to address climate change under the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global average temperature increase to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial temperatures.

This decision marks an important shift in the level of recognition by the Committee tasked with protecting World Heritage properties, apparently jolted by the devastating bleaching suffered by the majority of World Heritage coral reefs around the world.

In the past, the Committee has restricted its decisions to addressing localised threats such as water pollution and overfishing, choosing to leave the responsibility to address global climate change to other parts of the United Nations.

In the preamble to its latest decision, the Committee has recognised that local efforts alone are “no longer sufficient” to save the world’s threatened coral reefs.

But while this is an encouraging progression, some members of the Committee are still struggling to come to terms with addressing the global impacts of climate change. This is despite the impacts becoming more pronounced on other World Heritage properties, including glaciers, rainforests, oceanic islands, and sites showing the loss of key species.

The World Heritage-listed glacial landscape around Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps.
Steinmann/Wikimedia Commons

The ‘jewels’ of marine world heritage

Last month, UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre released the first global scientific assessment of the impact of climate change on all 29 World Heritage-listed coral reefs that are “the jewels in the World Heritage crown”.

The report paints a dire picture, with all but three World Heritage coral reefs exhibiting bleaching over the past three years. Iconic sites like the Great Barrier Reef (Australia), the Northwest Hawaiian islands (United States), the Lagoons of New Caledonia (France), and Aldabra Atoll (Seychelles) have all suffered their worst bleaching on record.

The most widely reported damage was the unprecedented bleaching suffered by the Great Barrier Reef in 2016-17, which killed around 50% of its corals.

The scientific report predicts that without large reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, all 29 reefs will “cease to exist as functioning coral reef ecosystems by the end of this century”.

Reefs can take 10-20 years to recover from bleaching. If our current emissions trajectory continues, within the next two decades, 25 out of the 29 World Heritage reefs will suffer severe heat stress twice a decade. This effectively means they will be unable to recover.

It should also be noted that the majority of World Heritage coral reefs are far better managed than other reefs around the world, so the implications of climate change for coral reefs globally are much worse.

All coral reefs are important

Almost one-third of the world’s marine fish species rely on coral reefs for some part of their life cycle. There are also 6 million people who fish on reefs in 99 countries and territories worldwide. This equates to about a quarter of the world’s small-scale fishers relying directly on coral reefs.

Half of all coral reef fishers globally are in Southeast Asia, and the western Pacific Island nations also have high proportions of reef fishers within their populations. In total, more than 400 million people in the poorest developing countries worldwide live within 100km of coral reefs. The majority of them depend directly on reefs for their food and livelihoods.

Coral reefs provide more value than any other ecosystem on Earth. They protect coastal communities from flooding and erosion, sustain fishing and tourism businesses, and host a stunning array of marine life. Their social, cultural and economic value has been estimated at US$1 trillion globally.

Recent projections indicate that climate-related loss of reef ecosystem services will total more than US$500 billion per year by 2100. The greatest impacts will be felt by the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on reefs.

Where else?

Recognising that the majority of the World Heritage coral reefs are expected to be seriously impacted by climate change is a good start. However, the Committee cannot afford to wait until similar levels of adverse impacts are evident at other natural and cultural heritage sites across the world.

The World Heritage Committee and other influential bodies must continue to acknowledge that climate change has already affected a wide range of World Heritage values through climate-related impacts such as species migrations, loss of biodiversity, glacial melting, sea-level rise, increases in extreme weather events, greater frequency of wildfires, and increased coastal erosion. To help understand the magnitude of the problem, the Committee has asked the World Heritage Centre and the international advisory bodies “to further study the current and potential impacts of climate change on World Heritage properties”, and report back in 2018.

The ConversationTwo of the key foundations of the World Heritage Convention are to protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage, and to pass that heritage on to future generations. For our sake, and the sake of future generations, let’s hope we can do both.

Jon C. Day, PhD candidate, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Barrier Reef is not listed as in danger, but the threats remain


Jon C. Day, James Cook University

The draft decision by UNESCO and IUCN proposes not to list the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) World Heritage Area as “in danger”, but it does put Australia on notice. It requests a progress report by 1 December 2016, vowing that if “the anticipated progress is not being made”, the GBR will be considered by the Committee in 2017.

At this stage, these are only recommendations, and the draft decision will be considered at the Committee’s meeting in Germany in late June, when the actual wording of the decision will be finalised.

The Committee does not always accept the wording in draft decisions and in recent years has often made amendments. Various factors can influence the views of its 21 member countries, so the final outcome may well depend on the Committee’s deliberations at the meeting.

The real state of the Reef

Either way, the reality is that despite all the pronouncements by the Australian government that the GBR is healthy, the evidence contained in its 2014 Outlook Report and Strategic Assessment has repeatedly demonstrated that the real situation is not as rosy as UNESCO and others are being told.

The following examples, from the Strategic Assessment, reveal the deterioration in many of the world heritage values for which the GBR was recognised as being internationally significant in 1981:

  • Since 1985, hard coral cover has declined from 28% to 13.8%, mainly in the southern two-thirds of the Reef.

  • Significant, widespread losses of seagrass have occurred in areas directly affected by cyclones Yasi (2011), Marcia (2015) and Nathan (2015); seagrass abundance south of Cooktown has declined since 2009.

  • Catastrophic nesting failures at globally significant seabird breeding areas have been recorded in the southern GBR, and the number of breeding seabirds on Raine Island has fallen by 70% since the 1980s.

  • The dugong population south of Cooktown has drastically declined from 1962 levels (see chapter 7, page 13 here).

Differing perspectives?

The government’s 2014 Outlook Report concluded that:

…the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor, has worsened since 2009 and is expected to further deteriorate in the future. Greater reductions of threats at all levels, Reef-wide, regional and local, are required to prevent the projected declines in the Great Barrier Reef.

To make doubly sure the GBR was not listed as “in danger”, diplomatic lobbying seems to have become the government’s main focus in recent months, when what is really needed is a serious and continuous focus on addressing the issues highlighted in its own reports.

The government’s view about the overall health of the GBR differs from that of many concerned individuals and organisations throughout Australia. There is a widespread belief that not enough has been done to ensure the restoration of the world heritage values, especially those shown to be deteriorating. This has led many, including the Australian Academy of Science, to state that the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan is deficient, particularly given the projected changes over the next 35 years.

Concerns for the GBR include climate change, water quality, coastal development, shipping, and unsustainable fishing. The Reef 2050 Plan will need to improve in all these areas if it is to achieve its intended aims.

A group of eminent Australians has also recently voiced their concerns about issues that will further impact on the GBR.

There were fears an endangered listing would damage tourism, but the real damage would be done by failing to save the reef.
AAP Image/Julian Smith

Unprecedented lobbying

The international lobbying about the GBR in 2014-15 has included senior government officials visiting all the countries on the Committee and briefing diplomats in Canberra and in Paris, offering GBR junkets to overseas journalists, and providing briefings to technical experts from many countries, including paying for visits to the Reef or to resort islands.

The government’s consistent message during all of this lobbying is that the GBR is healthy, and adequate financing will be available to implement the Reef 2050 Plan.

However, several overseas experts have recently told me that the briefings may not have provided the full picture. One example is the much-touted ban on dumping dredge spoil from port developments in the Marine Park, without raising the fact that about a million tonnes of maintenance dredging spoil will continue to be dumped every year in the World Heritage Area.

The expensive, excessive and selective lobbying about the GBR sets a poor global example in attempting to influence the decision-making processes of the World Heritage Committee.

What is the view of the tourism sector?

It has been claimed that tourism would suffer if the GBR were listed as “in danger”. The reality is that most tourist operators know only too well that the outlook for the GBR is poor, and many of them agree with Tony Fontes, a Whitsundays dive operator, who wrote to me:

“In-danger” listing … might actually be the catalyst to ensure the GBR is properly protected. Clearly more effective protection is essential now if we are to ensure tourism in the GBR is able to exist well into the future. Over the 35 years that I have been operating as a tourist operator, I have seen huge changes in the GBR. It’s clear the current management approach is not working to maintain the values which are the real draw cards for visitors, so more needs to be done to better protect the Reef, or the declining values are going to have an impact on the tourism industry in the future anyway.

Why more resources are needed

The government’s pledge to spend A$2 billion over 10 years is no more than the current collective annual expenditure (A$200 million) of four federal agencies, six state agencies and several major research programs over the coming decade.

So far, most funding has been spent addressing water quality, and while it has achieved some positive results, it has not managed to stop the deteriorating trends. According to one estimate, fixing the water quality problem alone will cost A$785 million over the first five years, and more beyond.

Even with an extra A$100 million for the Reef Trust in the Federal Budget, the funding is inadequate to deliver fully on the government’s promised plans.

The GBR generates more than A$5 billion every year, mainly from tourism. In economic terms, spending between A$200 million and $250 million per year to manage an asset that generates 20-25 times as much in revenue, but is declining, puts that future income in jeopardy.

If governments insist that further funds are unable be to found, then a re-prioritization of the existing funding must be undertaken to ensure the GBR’s values are restored.

Listing “in danger” would not have fixed the problems

An “in danger” listing, in and of itself, would not save the GBR. It would undoubtedly have raised international awareness of the problems, but those problems will still have to be addressed either way. Hopefully the government will now be encouraged by what it will see as a favourable outcome.

The government has been asked to report back on its policies next year, and on the status of the GBR in 2019. But given the clear evidence of the declining values, annual reporting to UNESCO should be required until it can be shown that the deteriorating trends have been reversed and the Reef 2050 Plan has been improved. The Outlook Report, while an comprehensive report on the overall status of the GBR, is deficient in the one thing that UNESCO needs to know: a thorough assessment of the condition and trend of all the world heritage values.

Irrespective of UNESCO’s final decision next month, Australia must do more to address the wide range of the threats identified in its own reports, and to show a genuine commitment to restoring the values of the GBR for the sake of future generations.

The Conversation

Jon C. Day is PhD candidate, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Australia reprieved – now it must prove it can care for the Reef


Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, The University of Queensland

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has decided not to add the Great Barrier Reef to the List of World Heritage in Danger, for now at least. In a draft decision released ahead of its annual meeting next month, it has welcomed Australia’s plan to save the Reef, but also demanded a progress report on its policies by the end of 2016, as well as a full update on the Reef’s conservation status by December 2019.

The move draws a temporary line underneath an issue that has loomed large for the past three years, bringing Australia’s stewardship of the Reef uncomfortably into the international spotlight.

During that time there has been copious input from scientists, politicians and campaigners, discussing threats such as climate change, dredging, pollution, shipping, and even the fate of the barramundi on our plates. It has got people talking all over the planet about whether or not the Australian and Queensland governments really care enough about one of the most recognisable symbols of Australia.

Not everyone has agreed with one another. As debated extensively on The Conversation and elsewhere, experts have advocated both for and against the idea of listing the Reef as endangered.

On one hand, the evidence is impossible to doubt that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger. Half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef have disappeared since 1985, and the destruction of coastal habitat by rapid port development and other activities has been plain to see. On the other hand, the recent ramping up of remedies by both federal and state governments shows that our leaders clearly want to honour the promises made when the Great Barrier Reef was first listed as World Heritage in 1981.

Has UNESCO made the right call?

I have previously argued that a decision to list the Great Barrier Reef as endangered would be premature. So UNESCO’s decision makes a lot of sense to me, for several reasons.

The first is that the decline of the Great Barrier Reef began as much as 100 years ago, and hence is not something that the government can turn around overnight. It requires a concerted, non-political process that recognises and aggressively solves the problems of pollution, sediments, and unsustainable fishing.

Given that we have not had an effective process for some time (water quality, for instance, has been an issue for decades; it didn’t just pop up in the past couple of years), it would seem counterproductive to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” at a time when federal and state governments are finally beginning to take clear actions in response to the issue. It will take time to rethink coastal agriculture, fix eroded gullies, and address issues such as coastal herbicide and pesticide use.

The second reason is that the response of ecosystems to these policy changes will necessarily be complex and slow. As coral populations hopefully rebound, seagrasses regrow, and threatened populations such as dugong being to recover, we will need to make careful long-term observations before we know if the actions taken now have been effective.

Short-term international manoeuvring won’t save the Great Barrier Reef. We need to think beyond politics and recognise that safeguarding the Reef will require a long-term commitment by Australia as a nation, not just a political process.

The third and final reason is that it would be rather perverse for UNESCO to ignore Australia’s clear intention to take this issue seriously. Given the effort that successive state and federal governments have made to avert an “in danger” listing, what incentive would remain if the listing was made anyway? It would hardly help to motivate future governments to fight the uphill battle of getting the listing removed again.

Crunch time

There is no doubt that federal environment minister Greg Hunt and his Queensland state counterpart Steven Miles will both be sighing with relief that the prospect of an “in danger” listing has been staved off for another five years. This is great for Australia and for the many people who believe that re-listing the reef as “in danger” would have been the wrong step to take at this time.

But the real work starts now. It’s time to vindicate UNESCO’s decision by showing that the Reef is truly being protected.

There are encouraging signs. The Queensland government has successfully introduced the Ports Bill, which restricts port development in Queensland to four so-called Priority Port Development Areas, and has restricted dredging for port facilities outside these areas for the next 10 years.

Meanwhile the federal government has banned port developers from dumping dredge spoil in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, and both federal and state governments have committed to a long-term sustainability plan that acknowledges the major challenges from coastal development, pollution, and (in a somewhat less satisfactory way) climate change.

This is all well and good. But as pointed out before, the devil is in the detail. While still in process, much of these commitments still need to be legislated, and without legislation they are no more than hot air. We must also trust our science (and not private opinion), and ensure that we take real actions with a measurable outcome that safeguards the Reef.

It is also absolutely essential that loopholes, such as those within the Ports Bill, are removed so that we never again find ourselves engaging in activities that are ultimately at odds with the long-term future of the Great Barrier Reef. As it stands now, for example, the Ports Bill only prohibits “significant” port development. However, what is classified as “significant” is not defined by the Bill and is, at this point of time, entirely arbitrary. These problems need to be fixed if Australia’s apparent sincerity about solving the problems is to be believed.

Let’s hope that in 2020, when UNESCO assesses the progress that has been made, Australia passes with flying colours as a nation that has successfully turned around one of its most significant environmental problems.

The Conversation

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg is Director, Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Article: Africa – New World Heritage Site


The link below is to an article that looks at the world’s latest World Heritage Site, which is in Africa. UNESCO has declared the new site which is shared by the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Cameroon.

For more visit:
http://news.mongabay.com/2012/0702-tns-world-heritage.html