The Blue Mountains World Heritage site has been downgraded, but it’s not too late to save it


Ian Wright, Western Sydney University; Anthony Capon, Monash University, and Leo Robba, Western Sydney University

Twenty years ago, UNESCO inscribed the greater Blue Mountains area on the World Heritage List for having “outstanding universal value”.

If you’ve travelled to the Blue Mountains, with its rugged sandstone cliff faces, hidden waterfalls and rich diversity of life, this value is undeniable. The Dharug and Gundungurra traditional owners long understood this value as they lived within and cared for Country (Ngurra) and, in turn, were nourished by it.

But after fires ripped through 71% of the greater Blue Mountains area, the condition of the World Heritage site has officially been downgraded.




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Last week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — the official advisor to UNESCO — rated the site as being of “significant concern”, a drop from “good with some concerns”. It’s now in the second-lowest category.

The news may be grim, but there are signs of hope. Despite threats of climate change, bushfires and decades of pollution, efforts are being made to minimise lingering impacts, and results are encouraging.

Ancient trees and unique animals

The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area covers just over one million hectares, divided into eight protected areas.

Regent honeyeater
Clearing of the regent honeyeater’s woodland habitat has led to numbers declining and their range contracting.
Shutterstock

The largest protected area is Wollemi National Park (499,879 ha) in the north. This park is, famously, home to the last wild population of Wollemi Pine. These trees have a deeply ancient lineage tracing back to when the Earth’s land masses were all part of the supercontinent Gondwana over 100 million years ago.




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The World Heritage area harbours 1,500 plant species, and 127 of them are rare or threatened. And in an outstanding example of the area’s uniqueness, it also contains more than 90 Eucalypt species — 13% of the global total.

The World Heritage area is also an important habitat for many rare and threatened animal species.

One celebrated seasonal visitor is the critically endangered regent honeyeater. Also under threat, and unique to the Blue Mountains, is the leura skink, which survives only in a handful of sensitive and vulnerable wetland communities.

Current threats

In its new report, the IUCN lists eight current threats undermining the greater Blue Mountains area. The most worrying – those considered “very high threats” in the report — are climate change and bushfires.

The severe fires of last summer inflicted long-lasting damage to many Blue Mountains species that contribute to the unique biodiversity of the area. And climate change is an emerging environmental pressure threatening the delicate ecology of the region through rising temperatures and changes to rainfall.

The IUCN also rated invasive plant and animal species, such as foxes, feral cats, horses, cattle and deer, as a high threat. Mining and quarrying, habitat alteration and several specific aspects of climate change (storms, drought, temperature extremes) were also listed.

The IUCN also named potential threats from planned operations, including future noise pollution from the new international airport in Western Sydney. Another is the impact of periodic flooding from a proposal to raise the wall of Warragamba Dam for flood mitigation purposes.

Blackened Blue Mountains bushland
The Black Summer bushfires decimated 71% of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area.
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Cleaning up their act

Climate change and bushfires require massive, coordinated national and international responses, but some major issues in the Blue Mountains can start to be resolved on relatively smaller scales.

For decades, the Blue Mountains have been flogged by a number of human pressures, such as an outdated sewage system from the City of the Blue Mountains and pollution from coal mining. While the environment hasn’t fully recovered, we’re pleased to see successes in the recovery efforts.

For decades, inadequate sewerage systems polluted multiple streams and rivers in the Blue Mountains.

In 1987, the Sydney Water Corporation started a 25-year, $250 million scheme to reduce water pollution from this inadequately treated sewage. And by 2010, a massive upgrade to the region’s sewage system closed 11 antiquated treatment plants.

All Blue Mountains wastewater is now treated to a higher standard at Winmalee in the lower Blue Mountains and is released away from waterways in the World Heritage area.

Another important pressure in the Greater Blue Mountains Area is from coal mining, with UNESCO expressing concerns in 2001 about water pollution from mines, such as the one operated by Clarence Colliery.

The author, Ian Wright, sampling water in the contaminated Wollangambe River.
The author, Ian Wright, sampling water in the contaminated Wollangambe River.
Ian Wright, Author provided

This mine is in state forest adjacent to the World Heritage area boundary. Research from 2017 found wastewater discharging from the mine was severely contaminating water quality of the Wollangambe River and damaging the ecology for more than 20 kilometres.




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Two years earlier, Clarence Colliery, owned by Centennial Coal, was prosecuted after more than 2,000 tonnes of coal material (a slurry of water and coal particles) spilled into the Wollangambe River.

Centennial Coal agreed to comply with a new EPA licence in 2017 requiring the disposal of less polluting wastes.

The latest results from October of this year are very encouraging. They show an enormous reduction (more than 95%) in the zinc concentration in mine waste, compared to 2012 levels.




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Embracing ‘planetary health’

For an internationally important site like this, which is home to more than 80,000 residents, all levels of government must adopt the concept of “planetary health”. This recognises that human health entirely depends on the health of natural systems and embraces Indigenous knowledge.

Wentworth Falls.
Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains. Embracing planetary health, a more holistic way of thinking about the environment, is the only way we can protect it.
Shutterstock

We’re pleased to see the Blue Mountains City Council is already on board. It recently announced plans to establish a planetary health leadership centre in Katoomba in partnership with universities and other educational institutions.

So while there is much to grieve, we can celebrate small successes in the Blue Mountains’ journey, which show it is indeed possible for a diverse array of parties and the broader community to work cooperatively, and start to better protect it.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University; Anthony Capon, Director, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University, and Leo Robba, Lecturer, Visual Communications / Social Design, Western Sydney University

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

How much the budget undervalued conservation: 16 World Heritage sites received less than Sydney Harbour



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Sean Maxwell, The University of Queensland and James Watson, The University of Queensland

The proportion of Earth’s surface designated as “protected” has expanded over the past decade. But new findings show these areas have failed to improve the state of the environment, casting doubt on government commitments to biodiversity conservation.

Our global research published in Nature yesterday found between 2010 and 2019, protected areas expanded from covering 14.1% to 15.3% of global land and freshwater environments (excluding Antarctica), and from 2.9% to 7.5% of marine environments.




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However, 78% of known threatened species and more than half of all ecoregions on land and sea remain without adequate protection. In Australia, we found nearly half of land-based ecoregions and threatened species have inadequate protections.

“Adequate” protection is different for individual species, but typically requires 10-100% of a species’ geographic range to be under some form of protection.

The Coalition government’s federal budget allocated A$233.4 million to six Commonwealth-run national parks — but most will be spent on tourism infrastructure upgrades. What’s needed is more staff and equipment to restore, enrich and maintain natural ecosystems, and to secure our most iconic natural places.

The best and worst performing countries

Our global assessment examined how nations are tracking a decade after committing to UN targets for area-based conservation: at least 17% of land and 10% of ocean must be protected by 2020.

Best-performing countries include Botswana, Hungary and Thailand. Botswana’s protected area estate adequately covers 86% of its ecoregions and 83% of its threatened species.

Chobe National Park in Botswana covers 1,170,000 hectares of savannah, woodland and marsh ecosystems. It was designated in 1968.
Sean Maxwell, Author provided

The worst performing countries — such as Indonesia, Canada and Madagascar — have a long way to go to meet these targets. For example, only 3% of Canada’s ocean waters are under formal protection.

But there are alarming and consistent problems with management. Globally, as much as 90% of marine protected areas have inadequate or below optimum on-site staff capacity. On land, some 47% of protected areas suffer from inadequate staff and budget resources. And the global budget shortfall for protected areas likely exceeds the multi-billion dollar mark.

Threatened species in Australia

Australia’s protected area estate is not immune to these management shortfalls. Between 1997 and 2014, there were more than 1,500 legal changes in Australia that eased restrictions, reduced boundaries or eliminated legal protections in protected areas.

Our research also showed less than 1% of the geographic ranges of the orange-bellied frog (Geocrinia vitellina), carpentarian dunnart (Sminthopsis butleri) and upriver orange mangrove (Bruguiera sexangula) — all threatened species — are protected.




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Many of Australia’s savanna ecoregions also have poor levels of protection, including the Mitchell grass downs (less than 3% of its range is protected), Brigalow tropical savanna (less than 5% protected) and southeast Australian temperate savannas (less than 4% protected).

But it’s not all bad news. We found around 36% of Australia’s oceans are protected and 76% of our marine ecoregions have adequate protection.

Protected areas cover 19% of Australia’s land and 36% of its oceans.
Sean Maxwell, Author provided

Previous studies also suggest protected areas governed by Indigenous Australians and local communities effectively reduce deforestation pressure and support similar numbers of species to those inside nationally designated protected areas.

How should funds be used?

Protecting our wild places will not come cheap. One estimate suggests an effective global land-based protected area network would cost US$76 billion annually.

This level of investment would ensure each protected area has sufficient staff, resources and equipment to conserve local species and ecosystems. The spending is justified, given the direct value generated by visits to protected areas around the world is valued at US$600 billion per year.




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In Australia, effective conservation typically requires mimicking land and sea use practices that were in place before Europeans arrived, which involves actively managing disturbances such as fire and invasive species.

Funds should also be used to track the biodiversity outcomes of protected areas to make sure they’re meeting their objectives.

Beyond budgets, national governments around the world must be more ambitious when negotiating the next round of international environmental targets, due in mid-2021. These negotiations will define national conservation agendas for the next decade.

Governments must adopt policies that make biodiversity conservation a greater part of broader land and sea management plans. They can, for example, embrace new models for land and sea stewardship that reward good behaviour by farmers, developers and miners.

Budget breakdown

In Australia, most national parks are funded and run by state governments. The federal government, through Parks Australia, is responsible for Kakadu, Uluru-Kata Tjuta, Christmas Island, Pulu Keeling, Booderee and Norfolk Island.

The Commonwealth also plays a key role in funding and managing Australia’s 16 natural World Heritage sites, including K’gari and the Ningaloo Coast.

Of the A$329.2 million allocated in the budget to protect iconic places, A$233.4 million (71%) is set aside for tourism infrastructure in non-World Heritage national parks in Australia.




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We calculate this provides about A$18,000 for every hectare of Booderee National Park and national parks on Christmas Island, Norfork Island and Pulu Keeling. Most of this will likely be spent on improving visitor amenities or ensuring nearby businesses can stay open, rather than directed to measures such as invasive species control or fire management.

Australia’s 16 natural World Heritage sites will receive just A$33.5 million — less than the $40.6 million promised to maintain and restore historical sites across Sydney Harbour.

Kakadu National Park
Australia’s 16 natural World Heritage sites will receive just A$33.5 million.
Shutterstock

A further $23.6 million was promised for compliance, enforcement and monitoring activities across Australia’s marine parks. Enforcing no-take marine protected areas improves species populations and biomass, but this funding boost is grossly inadequate. It equates to just 1 cent for every hectare of Commonwealth-run marine parks.

It’s hard to see how these measures will prevent further ecosystem degradation or species extinctions, when conservation of Australia’s biodiversity heavily relies on protected areas.




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In response to this article, a spokesperson for federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said investment in protecting national parks went beyond infrastructure spending, however infrastructure did assist people to “access parks in a responsible manner”.

Ley’s spokesperson said protecting biodiversity was “a core aspect of park operations” and included eradicating invasive species, and interaction with the National Environmental Science Program and the office of the threatened species commissioner.

In addition to national parks, Australia “also has the world’s largest network of Indigenous protected areas, which the government is already in the process of expanding,” the spokesperson said.The Conversation

Sean Maxwell, Research Fellow, The University of Queensland and James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland

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

New research reveals how Australia and other nations play politics with World Heritage sites



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Tiffany Morrison, James Cook University; Katrina Brown, University of Exeter; Maria Lemos, University of Michigan, and Neil Adger, University of Exeter

Some places are considered so special they’re valuable to all humanity and must be preserved for future generations. These irreplaceable gems – such as Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, Yosemite National Park and the Great Barrier Reef – are known as World Heritage sites.

When these places are threatened, they can officially be placed on the “List of World Heritage in Danger”. This action brings global attention to the natural or human causes of the threats. It can encourage emergency conservation action and mobilise international assistance.

However, our research released today shows the process of In Danger listings is being manipulated for political gain. National governments and other groups try to keep sites off the list, with strategies such as lobbying, or partial efforts to protect a site. Australian government actions to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the list are a prime example.

These practices are a problem for many reasons – not least because they enable further damage to threatened ecosystems.

Yosemite National Park is on the World Heritage list.
AAP/Kathryn Bermingham

What is the In Danger list?

World Heritage sites represent outstanding socioeconomic, natural and cultural values. Nations vie to have their sites included on the World Heritage list, which can attract tourist dollars and international prestige. In return, the nations are responsible for protecting the sites.

World Heritage sites are protected by an international convention, overseen by the United Nations body UNESCO and its World Heritage Committee. The committee consists of representatives from 21 of the 193 nations signed up to the convention.




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When a site comes under threat, the World Heritage Committee can list the site as in danger of losing its heritage status. In 2014 for example, the committee threatened to list the Great Barrier Reef as In Danger – in part due to a plan to dump dredged sediment from a port development near the reef, as well as poor water quality, climate change and other threats. This listing did not eventuate.

An In Danger listing can attract help to protect a site. For example, the Galápagos Islands were placed on the list in 2007. The World Heritage Fund provided the Ecuadorian government with technical and financial assistance to restore the site’s World Heritage status. The work is not yet complete, but the islands were removed from the In Danger list in 2010.

Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands were removed from the In Danger list in 2010.
EPA

Political games

Our study shows political manipulation appears to be compromising the process that determines if a site is listed as In Danger.

We examined interactions between UNESCO and 102 national governments, from 1972 until 2019. We interviewed experts from the World Heritage Committee, government agencies and elsewhere, and combined this with global site threat data, UNESCO and government records, and economic and governance data.

We found at least 41 World Heritage sites, including the Great Barrier Reef, were at least once considered by the World Heritage Committee for the In Danger list, but weren’t put on it. This is despite these sites being reported by UNESCO as threatened, or more threatened, than those already on the In Danger list. And 27 of the 41 sites were considered for an In Danger listing more than once.

The number of sites on the In Danger list declined by 31.6% between 2001 and 2008, and has plateaued since. By 2019, only 16 of 238 ecosystems were certified as In Danger. In contrast, the number of ecosystems on the World Heritage list has increased steadily over the past 20 years.




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So why is this happening? Our analysis showed the threat of an In Danger listing drives a range of government responses.

This includes governments complying only partially with World Heritage Committee recommendations or making only symbolic commitments. Such “rhetorical” adoption of recommendations has been seen in relation to the Three Parallel Rivers in China’s Yunnan province, the Western Caucasus in Russia and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (explored in more detail below).

In other cases, threats to a site are high but attract limited attention and effort from either the national government or UNESCO. These sites include Halong Bay in Vietnam and the remote Tubbataha Reefs in the Philippines.

A 2004 amendment to the way the World Heritage Committee assesses In Danger listings means sites can be “considered” for inclusion rather than just listed, retained or removed. This has allowed governments to use delay tactics, such as in the case of Cameroon’s Dja Faunal Reserve. It has been considered for the In Danger list five times since 2011, but never listed.

Threats to Vietnam’s Halong Bay receive little attention.
Richard Vogel/AAP

Case in point: The Great Barrier Reef

In 2014 and 2015, the Australian government spent more than A$400,000 on overseas lobbying trips to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the In Danger list. The environment minister and senior bureaucrats travelled to most of the 21 countries on the committee, plus other nations, to argue against the listing. The mining industry also contributed to the lobbying effort.

The World Heritage Committee had asked Australia to develop a long-term plan to protect the reef. The Australian and Queensland governments appeared to comply, by releasing the Reef 2050 Plan in 2015.

But in 2018, a national audit and Senate inquiry found a substantial portion of finance for the plan was delivered – in a non-competitive and hidden process – to the private Great Barrier Reef Foundation, which had limited capacity and expertise. This casts doubt over whether the aims of the reef plan can be achieved.

Real world damage

Our study makes no recommendation on which World Heritage sites should be listed as In Danger. But it uncovered political manipulation that has real-world consequences. Had the Great Barrier Reef been listed as In Danger, for example, developments potentially harmful to the reef, such as the Adani coal mine, may have struggled to get approval.

Last year, an outlook report gave the reef a “very poor” prognosis and last summer the reef suffered its third mass bleaching in five years. There are grave concerns for the ecosystem’s ability to recover before yet another bleaching event.

Political manipulation of the World Heritage process undermines the usefulness of the In Danger list as a policy tool. Given the global investment in World Heritage over the past 50 years, it is essential to address the hidden threats to good governance and to safeguard all ecosystems.




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The Conversation


Tiffany Morrison, Professorial Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Katrina Brown, Professor of Social Sciences, University of Exeter; Maria Lemos, Professor of Environmental Justice, Environmental Policy and Planning, Climate + Energy,, University of Michigan, and Neil Adger, Professor of Human Geography, University of Exeter

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.
Shutterstock

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.

How the internet is reshaping World Heritage and our experience of it



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Many more people experience World Heritage sites like the Sydney Opera House in digital form than physically visit them.
Author provided

Cristina Garduño Freeman, University of Melbourne

Most people’s experience of World Heritage is now a digital one. Whether it’s on social media, an official website, Wikipedia or a simple Google search, this shift in “visitation” means many people who engage with World Heritage will never physically travel to the actual site.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee is the top-tier organisation for the protection of natural and cultural heritage. To date, 1,073 properties have been listed for their significance to all of mankind.

The list includes many well-known ancient monuments like the Pyramids of Giza, and the Parthenon, and natural sites like Uluru Kata-Tjuta. Less frequently recognised are industrial sites like the Rideau Canal and contemporary works of architecture such as the Sydney Opera House.

The Sydney Opera House was listed in 2007, not only for its architectural and technical achievements as a masterpiece of modernism, but curiously also for its status as a world-famous iconic building. Digital visits to the Sydney Opera House now outnumber in-person visits by 16 to 1.

Everyday digital engagements with the Sydney Opera House online.
Author provided

Digital engagement has a very broad reach

By 2019, half of the world’s people will have access to the internet. For most, the internet is essential to everyday life. The impact of this exponential growth of the internet on people’s engagement with World Heritage has been overlooked. Yet it has the potential to tell us about the close connections people have with some of our most esteemed places.

Managing organisations are beginning to see the social and economic value of digital audiences. In 2013 the Sydney Opera House reported a digital reach of 128 million. Deloitte estimated this to be worth A$59 million. It’s the result of a media strategy to develop digital content, social media engagement, and participatory online events.

The official media channels of the Sydney Opera House.
Author provided

But this is not the whole story. What about all the things people do online outside of the Sydney Opera House’s formal social media channels?

We know that not everyone actively posts pictures, edits Wikipedia, or writes a blog. The 1% rule describes online participation. For every person who actively contributes content, nine others will like it. Another 90 will simply view the originally posted content.

Adding up the number of followers across the official Sydney Opera House social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube) gives us an immediate audience of about 1.67 million. Using the 1% rule, this extrapolates to 167 million, which is similar to Deloitte’s 2013 figure. This is almost seven times Australia’s population and equivalent to 2% of the world population. World Heritage has never been so visible!

But numbers are not the only story here. While impressive, they don’t tell us how people feel connected with such places.

What can the internet tell us?

My recent research investigates online forms of participation with the Sydney Opera House. Combining digital ethnography and data analytics enables us to better understand the social value of architectural icons and the implications for World Heritage.

Popular depictions of the Sydney Opera House posted online include photographs, cakes, artworks, children’s books, Lego, other buildings and hats. By examining these we can understand people’s values and how they engage with this World Heritage site in everyday activities and in the process reshape the narratives being told.

Six ways in which people engage with the Sydney Opera House revealed through their online participation.
Author provided

Close examination of online posts and activities reveals communities of people passionate about the Sydney Opera House. Participatory platforms such as Wikipedia and Flickr are filled with people dedicated to telling a comprehensive historically and visually accurate story about this place. But people are also discerning; they highlight that a single building cannot fully represent their city.

Brands and organisations also reference the form of the Sydney Opera House in their logo types to gain cultural capital. Examples include the Sydney Swans, Sydney Mardi Gras and the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The varied references to this place in many different contexts show its power to create a social connection that transcends borders.

What are the implications for World Heritage?

A World Heritage listing brings an increase in visibility and visits. A listed site gains international recognition and cultural status as well as economic benefits through tourism.

In the decade since the Sydney Opera House became a World Heritage site, annual visitors have doubled from 4 million to 8.2 million, audiences have grown from 1.2 to 1.5 million, and tours of the building have increased by a third.

But World Heritage status comes with a need to preserve and conserve the listed site. For the Sydney Opera House, this means maintaining its iconic status.

My research demonstrates how people’s participation through popular culture helps to maintain this iconic status. Through posting pictures on Instagram, or making “opera-house-shaped things” and sharing them online, people integrate this icon into their daily lives. But this also challenges the building’s copyright, which underpins corporate partnerships that provide funding in exchange for affiliation.

Further, tourism can threaten the conservation of World Heritage properties. Too many visitors and excessive development puts pressure on local communities, management and facilities.

International visibility can also make properties targets of political destruction. This raises questions about how World Heritage status is given and its implications for conservation in an increasingly digitally mediated world.

The ConversationThe Sydney Opera House always held the promise of transformation of Sydney. Now global online communities are transforming it. In our inevitable digital future, what role people will play in ascribing and maintaining World Heritage status?

Cristina Garduño Freeman, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Australian Centre for Architectural History, Urban and Cultural Heritage (ACAHUCH), 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.

How our research is helping clean up coal-mining pollution in a World Heritage-listed river



Image 20170329 1674 1tkl166
The Wollangambe River’s canyons are loved by adventurers.
Ben Green

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

The Wollangambe River in New South Wales is a unique gift of nature, flowing through the stunning Wollemi National Park, wilderness areas and the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains. It’s an adventure tourism hotspot, with thousands of people clambering through the river’s majestic canyons each year.

So it was with a sense of irony that bushwalkers noticed unnatural flow and discolouration in the river and suspected it was pollution. In 2012 they contacted Western Sydney University, which has since conducted ongoing investigations.

The pollution was traced back to the Clarence Colliery, owned by Centennial Coal. Our recent research confirms that this is one of the worst cases of coal mine pollution in Australia, and indeed the world.

For four years I and other researchers have been investigating the pollution and its impacts on the river. The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has verified our findings. In exciting news, the mine was in March issued a revised environmental licence, which we believe is the most stringent ever issued to an Australian coal mine.

This is appropriate given the conservation significance of the river and the current scale of the pollution. We are now hopeful that the pollution of the Wollangambe River may soon be stopped.

Water pollution damages the river and its ecology

The Clarence Colliery is an underground mine constructed in 1980. It is just a few kilometres from the boundary of the Blue Mountains National Park.

Clarence Colliery and Wollangambe River.
Ian Wright

Our research revealed that waste discharges from the mine cause a plume of water pollution at least 22km long, deep within the conservation area. The mine constantly discharges groundwater, which accumulates in underground mines. The water is contaminated through the mining process. The mine wastes contributed more than 90% of the flow in the upper reaches of the river.

The EPA regulates all aspects of the mining operation relating to pollution. This includes permission to discharge waste water to the Wollangambe River, provided that it is of a specified water quality.

Our research found that the wastes totally modified the water chemistry of the river. Salinity increased by more than ten times below the mine. Nickel and zinc were detected at levels that are dangerous to aquatic species.

We surveyed aquatic invertebrates, mostly insects, along the river and confirmed that the mine waste was devastating the river’s ecology. The abundance of invertebrates dropped by 90% and the number of species was 65% lower below the mine waste outfall than upstream and in tributary streams. Major ecological impacts were still detected 22km downstream.

We shared our early research findings with the NSW EPA in 2014. The authority called for public submissions and launched an investigation using government scientists from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. Their study confirmed our findings.

Progress was interrupted when tonnes of sediment from the mine were dislodged in 2015 after heavy rainfall and the miner and the EPA focused on cleaning the sediment from the river. This incident has resulted in the EPA launching a prosecution in the NSW Land and Environment Court.

We recently compared the nature and scale of pollution from this mine with other coal mine pollution studies. The comparison confirms that this is one of the most damaging cases of coal mine water pollution in Australia, or internationally.

Even 22km below the waste outfall, the Wollangambe is still heavily polluted and its ecosystems are still degraded. One of the unique factors is that this mine is located in an otherwise near-pristine area of very high conservation value.

New licence to cut pollution

The new EPA licence was issued March 1, 2017. It imposes very tight limits on an extensive suite of pollutant concentrations that the mine is permitted to discharge to the Wollangambe River.

The licence covers two of the most dangerous pollutants in the river: nickel and zinc. Nickel was not included in the former licence.

The new licence now includes a sampling point on the river where it flows into the World Heritage area, about 1km downstream from the mine. The licence specifies vastly lower concentrations of pollutants at this new sampling point.

For example, the permitted concentration of zinc has been reduced from 1,500 micrograms per litre in the waste discharge, in the old licence, to 8 micrograms per litre.

It can be demoralising to witness growing pollution that is damaging the ecosystems with which we share our planet. This case study promises something different.

The actions of the EPA in issuing a new licence to the mine provide hope that the river might have a happy ending to this sad case study. The new licence comes into effect on June 5, 2017.

The ConversationOur current data suggest that water quality in the river is already improving. We dream that improved water quality, following this licence, will trigger a profoundly important ecological recovery. Now we just have to wait and see whether the mine can improve its waste treatment to meet the new standards.

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

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

Year-on-year bleaching threatens Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage status


Terry Hughes, James Cook University; Barry Hart, Monash University, and Karen Hussey, The University of Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef has already been badly damaged by global warming during three extreme heatwaves, in 1998, 2002 and 2016. A new bleaching event is under way now. The Conversation

As shown in a study published in Nature today, climate change is not some distant future threat. It has already degraded large tracts of the Great Barrier Reef over the past two decades.

The extreme marine heatwave in 2016 killed two-thirds of the corals along a 700km stretch of the northern Great Barrier Reef, from Port Douglas to Papua New Guinea. It was a game-changer for the reef and for how we manage it.

Our study shows that we cannot climate-proof coral reefs by improving water quality or reducing fishing pressure. Reefs in clear water were damaged as much as muddy ones, and the hot water didn’t stop at the boundaries of no-fishing zones. There is nowhere to hide from global warming. The process of replacement of dead corals in the northern third of the reef will take at least 10-15 years for the fastest-growing species.

The Great Barrier Reef is internationally recognised as a World Heritage Area. In 2015 UNESCO, the world body with oversight of World Heritage Areas, considered listing the reef as a site “in danger” in light of declines in its health.

Australia’s response falling short

In response to concerns from UNESCO, Australia devised a plan, called the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan. Its ultimate goal is to improve the “Outstanding Universal Value” of the reef: the attributes of the Great Barrier Reef that led to its inscription as a World Heritage Area in 1981.

We have written an independent analysis, delivered to UNESCO, which concludes that to date the implementation of the plan is far too slow and has not been adequately funded to prevent further degradation and loss of the reef’s values. A major shortcoming of the plan is that it virtually ignores the greatest current impact on the Great Barrier Reef: human-caused climate change.

The unprecedented loss of corals in 2016 has substantially diminished the condition of the World Heritage Area, reducing its biodiversity and aesthetic values. Key ecological processes are under threat, such as providing habitat, calcification (the formation of corals’ reef-building stony skeletons) and predation (creatures eating and being eaten by corals). Global warming means that Australia’s aim of ensuring the Great Barrier Reef’s values improve every decade between now and 2050 is no longer attainable for at least the next two decades.

What needs to change

Our report makes 27 recommendations for getting the Reef 2050 Plan back on track. The following are critical:

  • Address climate change and reduce emissions, both nationally and globally. The current lack of action on climate is a major policy failure for the Great Barrier Reef. Local action on water quality (the focus of the Reef 2050 Plan) does not prevent bleaching, or “buy time” for future action on emissions. Importantly, though, it does contribute to the recovery of coral reefs after major bleaching.

  • Reduce run-off of sediment, nutrients and pollutants from our towns and farms. To date the progress towards achieving the water quality targets and uptake of best management practice by farmers is very poor. Improving water quality can help recovery of corals, even if it doesn’t prevent mortality during extreme heatwaves.

  • Provide adequate funding for reaching net zero carbon emissions, for achieving the Reef 2050 Plan targets for improved water quality, and limiting other direct pressures on the reef.

At this stage, we do not recommend that the reef be listed as “in danger”. But if we see more die-backs of corals in the next few years, little if any action on emissions and inadequate progress on water quality, then an “in danger” listing in 2020, when UNESCO will reconsider the Great Barrier Reef’s status, seems inevitable.


This article was co-authored by Diane Tarte, co-director of Marine Ecosystem Policy Advisors Pty Ltd. She was a co-author of the independent report to UNESCO on the Great Barrier Reef.

Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University, James Cook University; Barry Hart, Emeritus Professor Water Science, Monash University, and Karen Hussey, Deputy Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

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

The detective work behind the Budj Bim eel traps World Heritage bid


Ian J. McNiven, Monash University

Last month, Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull visited the Gunditjmara community of southwest Victoria to announce that the federal government had included the Budj Bim cultural landscape on its World Heritage Tentative List. It was, he said,

the first area [in Australia] exclusively listed for its Aboriginal culture and heritage and it is absolutely an appropriate recognition of its significance and its values.

So what warrants the area’s inclusion on UNESCO’s esteemed World Heritage list? At its core, this is a story about the Gunditjmara and their continuing relationship with the Budj Bim cultural landscape. It is also a story about how the Gunditjmara have successfully fought to overturn European misunderstandings of the complexity and sophistication of their culture and history.

This story of misunderstandings begins with an 1841 expedition to southwest Victoria by the Chief Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson.

On 9th July 1841, to the north of Gunditjmara country at a swamp near Mt William, Robinson reported

an immense piece of ground trenched and banked, resembling the work of civilized man but which on inspection I found to be the work of the Aboriginal natives, purposefully constructed for catching eels.

GA Robinson.
Tasmanian State Library/wikimedia commons

Robinson estimated that the system of channels measured “some thousands of yards” (2 km) in length and covered an area of “at least 15 acres” (6 hectares).

His findings were not what early settlers of the colony wanted to hear. Colonial settlement was about removing nomadic savages, not tillers of the land. The evidence was either ignored as an inconvenient truth or dismissed as evidence of “irrigation” by a superior race of cultivators living in Australia prior to the coming of the Aborigines.

It took another 135 years for more appreciative European eyes to examine the scale and complexity of western Victoria’s Aboriginal fishery.

Investigations in the 1970s

In the 1970s, Dr Peter Coutts of the Victoria Archaeological Survey carried out site surveys at Lake Condah (Tae Rak), the centerpiece of the Budj Bim cultural landscape. Lake Condah is very different to the marshy plains near Mt William. It is a rugged lava flow terrain of basalt rises, swampy depressions, and waterways formed as a result of the eruption of Mt Eccles (Budj Bim) at least 30,000 years ago.

Coutts and his team found what local Gunditjmara people had long known about – extensive Aboriginal fish trapping systems comprising hundreds of metres of excavated channels and dozens of basalt block dam walls constructed over innumerable generations before European contact. Coutts estimated that the volume of basalt blocks moved measured in “the many hundreds of tonnes”.

A 200 metre long fish trap channel mapped by Peter Coutts’s team at Lake Condah.
Victoria Archaeological Survey

Determining how the Budj Bim traps operated was made difficult after European alteration of Lake Condah’s water flows through installation of drainage channels in the 1880s and 1950s. Luckily, heavy winter rains in 1977 revealed how some Aboriginal-made channels fed water and eels into natural depressions that Coutts termed “holding ponds”. In addition, numerous C-shaped basalt block structures, averaging around 3-4 metres across, and representing house foundations – possibly clustered into villages – were recorded in the same area as the fish traps.

Coutts hypothesised that the fishing facilities were up to 3500 years old, based on radiocarbon dating of habitation sites in the region such as earthen mounds and shell middens. Reconstruction of ancient water levels in Lake Condah by pollen expert Leslie Head revealed that while some traps could have operated 8000 years ago, most traps corresponded to water levels of the past 2000 years.

Working at the same time as Coutts was Harry Lourandos, a PhD researcher from the University of Sydney. Lourandos examined Robinson’s journals in detail and investigated a huge Aboriginal fish trap at Toolondo, 110 km north of Lake Condah.

Here again was further evidence of Aboriginal people digging an earthen channel (some 3 km long) to move eels into a swamp to dramatically increase their range and availability. Lourandos’ excavations revealed that it was up to 2.5 m wide and over one metre deep. A “lump” of redwood buried within infill sediments at the base of the channel was radiocarbon dated to 200 years, indicating a minimum date for last use of the site. An original construction date for the channel has yet to be determined.

Aware of Coutts’ Lake Condah holding ponds, Lourandos had the intellectual foresight to call the Toolondo and Mt William facilities for what they were – eel “farms” associated with eel traps.

3D computer maps

In the 1990s and 2000s, Heather Builth, a PhD researcher from Flinders University, worked closely with the Gunditjmara to create sophisticated 3D computer maps of channels and basalt block dam walls and fish traps along Darlot Creek (Killara) at the southern end of the Budj Bim cultural landscape.

Builth computer modelled water levels and revealed that these stone features were constructed across the lava flow to form a complex system of artificial ponds to hold flood waters and eels at different stages of growth.

These holding ponds allowed eels to grow in a restricted and protected area and be available to the Gunditjmara for much of the year. Critically, increasing the availability of the eels centred on improving eel survival given that the eels breed in the Coral Sea. Builth described this complex network of ponds as “aquaculture”.

The funnel shaped start of Muldoons trap system, Lake Condah.
Ian McNiven

The most recent insights into the Budj Bim fishing facilities concern their antiquity. Over the past decade, myself and students from Monash University, in collaboration with the Gunditjmara, have excavated Muldoons trap system at Lake Condah, which had been partly buried over the years by flood sediments.

Radiocarbon dating of tiny charcoal fragments within these sediments produced surprising results. One channel was built at least 6600 years ago, while a dam wall was added 500 years ago. Not only had we discovered the world’s oldest known stone walled fish trap, but also the longest used fish trap in the world.

3D computer modelling by Tom Richards as part of this PhD research at Monash indicated that the Muldoons dam was used to pond water and fish. This pond provides the earliest available date for Gunditjmara aquaculture.

Not simply hunter gatherers

These large-scale fishing facilities and associated aquaculture ponds rupture traditional representations of Aboriginal people as simply hunter gatherers.

Lake Condah with its rugged basalt lava flow features in the Budj Bim cultural landscape.
AAP

Rather than living passively off whatever nature provided, the Gunditjmara actively and deliberately manipulated local water flows and ecologies to engineer a landscape focused on increasing the availability and reliability of eels.

Manipulation of the landscape involved stone structures (such as traps and channels) dating back at least 6600 years with eel aquaculture facilities (ponds and dam walls) pre-dating contact with Europeans by many hundreds (and possibly thousands) of years.

As Lourandos pointed out more than three decades ago, and Bruce Pascoe reveals in his recent award-winning book Dark Emu, differences between hunter gatherers and cultivators, and foragers and farmers, are far more complex and blurred than we once thought.

The Budj Bim cultural landscape provides an outstanding example on a world stage of the scale, complexity, and antiquity of a well preserved Aboriginal fishery that continues into the present. And it is an exceptional example of Aboriginal environmental manipulation and management that blurs the distinction between foragers and farmers. Over the next year or so, a formal World Heritage nomination will be prepared by the Victorian government spearheaded by the Gunditjmara for submission to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee.

Denis Rose.
Ian McNiven

The evaluation of the nomination by the committee will be thorough. It will compare Budj Bim to similar types of places around the world. The case is strong but it will be a number of years before the committee makes a final decision.

Budj Bim is a living cultural landscape and a strong focus for Gunditjmara heritage, identity, and spiritual well-being. It is now time for this remarkable heritage to be shared with the world. As senior Gunditjmara elder and longtime Budj Bim World Heritage listing advocate Denis Rose has said:

It’s one of those secrets that are a bit too well kept, I suppose. But we are involved in tourism and we do want to get people out on country a bit more and have access to properties to get a better understanding of Gunditjmara culture.

So what will you see if you go there? Hundreds of Gunditjmara stone-walled fishing facilities and stone house foundations are located along the 30 km length of the area. However in many cases, these low-lying sites are on private land and are hard to see through the long grass that covers much of the lava flow.

To experience these sites firsthand, visit the Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected Area for a self-guided tour. Or for a Gunditjmara guided tour of the area and access to the large and clearly defined fishing facilities at Lake Condah, contact Budj Bim Tours. (And if smoked eels take your fancy, the Gunditjmara have plans to augment their eel fishery to commercial levels.)

Australia has come a long way since GA Robinson’s recordings of Aboriginal social and technological complexity were sidelined.

The Conversation

Ian J. McNiven, Professor of Indigenous Archaeology, Monash University

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

More than half the world’s most important natural sites are under threat: it’s time to protect them


James Watson, The University of Queensland; James Allan, The University of Queensland, and Sean Maxwell, The University of Queensland

Would we knock down the pyramids or flatten the Acropolis to make way for housing estates, roads or farms? You would hope not. Such an indictment would deprive future generations of the joy and marvel we all experience when visiting or learning about such historic places.

Yet right now, across our planet, many of the United Nations’ World Heritage sites that have been designated for natural reasons are being rapidly destroyed in the pursuit of short-term economic goals.

In our paper published in Biological Conservation, we found that expanding human activity has damaged more than 50 of the 203 natural sites, and 120 have lost parts of their forests over the past 20 years. Up to 20 sites risk being damaged beyond repair.

So how can we better look after these precious sites?

Jewels in the crown

Globally recognised areas that contain the Earth’s most beautiful and important natural places are granted natural World Heritage status by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). Each natural World Heritage site is unique and therefore irreplaceable.

Current sites include iconic landscapes such as Yosemite National Park in the United States, and important biodiversity conservation areas such as Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

Wildebeest gather at the river’s edge on migration in Serengeti National Park.
Wildebeest image from http://www.shutterstock.com

The World Heritage Convention strives to protect natural World Heritage sites and keep their condition as close to pristine as possible. As with those hundreds of cultural World Heritage sites such as Petra and Masada, no human modification or damage is acceptable. These sites are the natural world’s crown jewels.

We examined the degree of human pressure (including roads, agriculture, urbanisation and industrial infrastructure) and direct forest loss across areas with natural World Heritage status.

These changes are not compatible with maintaining the natural heritage of these places. And should sites be damaged beyond repair, we will have lost some of the common heritage of humankind forever.

Chitwan National Park, Nepal.
Rhino image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Which sites fared worst?

We found that human pressure within sites has increased in every continent except Europe over the last two decades. Asia is home to the worst-affected sites, including Manas Wildlife Sanctuary in India, Komodo National Park in Indonesia, and Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Development has also badly affected Simien National Park in Ethiopia and it has been listed as World Heritage “in danger”. European sites, such as St Kilda, were already highly modified 20 years ago and have largely remained as such since then.

Change in human footprint between 1993 and 2009 across natural World Heritage sites inscribed prior to 1993. Sites that experienced an increase (which may threaten their unique values) are shown in red, while sites that experienced a decrease are shown in green. Site boundaries are not to scale and have been enlarged for clarity.
Allan et al. 2017

A majority of the sites have lost areas of forest. Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada lost 2,581 square kilometres (11.7%) and Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras lost 365 square km (8.5%) of forest since 2000.

The processes behind why the sites lost forest cover are diverse. In the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, also “in danger”, illegal drug trafficking created insecurity and instability in the region, which allowed widespread illegal deforestation and illegal settlement to occur.

Deforestation in Patuca National Park in Honduras.
J.Polisar

In North America, even celebrated places like Yellowstone have been affected, losing some 6% of forest cover. This, and the losses in Wood Buffalo National Park, is almost certainly due to the largest pine beetle outbreaks on record. These are stripping trees of foliage and making them more susceptible to fire.

Although pine beetle damage is a semi-natural phenomenon, it is being assisted by human-caused climate change, as winters are no longer cold enough to kill off the beetles. This is notoriously hard to manage on the ground, but instead requires the United States and Canada to strengthen their efforts to fight climate change nationally and on the global stage.

Time to stop paving paradise

The 192 signatories to the World Heritage Convention need to respond to these findings. The World Heritage Committee must use information like this to immediately assess these highly threatened sites and work with nations to try to halt the erosion.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee meets again this July in Poland. It is not too late; with urgent intervention most sites can still be retained.

A mining site in Kahuzi Biega Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A K Plumptre WCS

The method we have used makes it much easier to identify natural World Heritage sites that may need to be added to the “in danger” list so extra attention and resources are channelled towards saving them.

Sites such as Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, which have lost so much forest in such a short time, need to be identified and those nations supported in averting further decline. Ultimately, World Heritage status can be retracted if the values a site is listed for are undermined. This would be an international embarrassment for the host nation.

The global community can play a role by holding governments to account so that they take the conservation of natural World Heritage sites seriously. We already do this for many of our cultural sites, and it is time to give natural sites the equal recognition and support they deserve.

Just as we would defend the Colosseum in Rome, Petra in Jordan, or Mont St Michel in France, we must fight against the planned highway across the Serengeti in Tanzania, uranium mining in Kakadu and logging of the Styx Valley in Australia, and forests being cleared for agriculture in Sumatra, Indonesia. This work is a call to action to save our natural world heritage.

The Conversation

James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland; James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland, and Sean Maxwell, PhD candidate, The University of Queensland

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