Civil Society stands up for the protection and preservation of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Feature story - 2 July, 2012
For the first time in 40 years, civil society representatives gathered in an independent NGO forum on the protection of World Heritage sites organized by Greenpeace Russia and other Russian NGOs. This forum took place prior to the currently running annual global meeting of the World Heritage Committee (WHC) in St. Petersburg, June 24-July 6, with more than 100 people from 24 countries participating, in order to exchange and discuss concerns on and around World Heritage areas all over the globe.

While it is widely agreed that the UNESCO mechanism is an important tool to save and protect areas of outstanding universal values, the decision-making mechanisms are clouded and undermined by high level political games. Public participation and transparency are foreign words in this process – civil society representatives do not get access to timely information,  and they are not represented in their state’s UNESCO party, which would be key to participate in the decision making process of the WHC.  It is high time to change this situation.

Participants in the NGO forum adopted a couple of resolutions, including recommendations and requests for their members of the UNESCO WHC, highlighting the need for more public participation, transparency and access  to information.  One of the ideas discussed at the forum is the foundation of an NGO platform called "World Heritage Watch" – a watchdog body that would support the push for requested changes from civil society.

Several Russian World Heritage Sites are under serious threat, among others the sites in "Western Caucasus", "Virgin Komi Forests",  "Golden Mountains of Altai" and "Lake Baikal".  In the Western Caucasus, a Russian State company called "Northern Caucasus Resort Company" is planning brand new mountain ski resort facilities on the territory of Lagonaki, overlapping with the perimeter of the UNESCO territory. The territory in Komi is threatened by a gold mine, the one in Altai by a gas pipeline between Russia and China – and Lake Baikal by a pulp mill.

Among the hot topics of threatened World Heritage sites outside of Russia are the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as the Great Barrier Reef and Tasmanian Wilderness Areas in Australia. Greenpeace rang the alarm bell about the fate of Virunga earlier this year  when the DRC government handed out permits to SOCO for oil exploration in Africa’s oldest Natural Park. In Australia,  the world’s most famous coral Reef, the Great Barrier Reef, is threatend by an the enormous expansion of coal mining and coal exports in Australia.  The beautiful virgin forests of Tansmania are under pressure by logging activities.

The NGO forum has called upon the WHC as well as the State Party represetatives to take appropriate measures regarding all of these threatened sites around the globe.

Last but not least, the forum participants identified the necessity for the UNESCO Convention to be able to protect areas outside the national territories of the member states. One important example of this is the Arctic: an area which is not exclusively the national territory of any one country but is important for the entire planet. The Arctic is warming and soon it could be free of ice for the first time in human history. This future will be devastating for the animals that call the Arctic home: polar bears, narwhals, walruses. But more than this, it will be devastating for all life on our planet – the Arctic ice reflects the sun’s heat back into space and helps to keep our planet cool, as well as contributing to stabilizing weather systems that support life on our planet. Our reliance on dirty fossil fuels is warming the Arctic and contributing to the loss of this ice, at the same time the oil and fishing industry are moving into the Arctic to exploit the receding ice. We must protect the Arctic environment from these threats before we lose it forever. It should be a priority to be assessed by UNESCO and included as a World Heritage site once the necessary changes are made to the convention.