Nearly half of all natural World Heritage sites are threatened by harmful industrial activities, according to a new WWF report. These sites provide vital services to people and the environment, but are at risk worldwide from activities including oil and gas exploration, mining and illegal logging.
The report, produced for WWF by Dalberg Global Development Advisors, shows how natural World Heritage sites contribute to economic and social development through the protection of the environment, but also details global failures to protect these areas of outstanding universal value.
According to the study, 114 natural and mixed World Heritage sites out of 229 either have oil, gas or mining concessions overlapping them or are under threat from at least one other harmful industrial activity.
“World Heritage sites should receive the highest levels of protection, yet we are often unable to safeguard even this important fraction of the Earth’s surface,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International. “We all agree that these are some of the most valuable and unique places on the planet, now we need to work together to let these sites provide for the well-being of people and nature.”
More than eleven million people – greater than the population of Portugal – depend on World Heritage sites for food, water, shelter and medicine, and could be negatively affected by the impacts of harmful industrial activities conducted at large-scale.
World Heritage sites could play a key role for these people and communities worldwide in achieving the global sustainable development goals agreed last year by UN member states. According to the report, 90 per cent of natural World Heritage sites provide jobs and benefits that extend far beyond their boundaries.
“We need to wake up to the fact that people don’t just protect these sites, these sites protect people. Governments and businesses need to prioritize long-term value over short-term revenue and respect the status of these incredible places,” said Lambertini. “We need to turn away from harmful industrial activities and focus on sustainable alternatives that enhance World Heritage sites, their values and the benefits they provide.”
The study, Protecting People through Nature: Natural World Heritage Sites as Drivers of Sustainable Development, also shows that over 20 per cent of natural World Heritage sites face threats from multiple harmful industrial activities.
In one example cited in the report, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System is shown to be at risk from unsustainable coastal construction, large-scale mangrove clearance, harmful agricultural run-off and the potential of dangerous oil exploration. These threats put the well-being of 190,000 people – half of Belize’s population – at risk.
“Conserving the environment does not hurt economic opportunities, it allows us to build sustainably on these irreplaceable assets,” said Roberto Troya, WWF’s Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Threats to World Heritage sites in places as diverse as Belize, Spain and Tanzania demonstrate how widespread the risks run and should unite us in our effort to protect these essential areas.”
Among other measures listed in the report, WWF is asking the private sector to make no go commitments to refrain from activities that threaten to degrade World Heritage sites. Financing should also be withheld from projects involving harmful industrial activities in World Heritage sites or the companies conducting them.
National governments should ensure that no harmful industrial activities are permitted in World Heritage sites or in areas that could negatively affect them. Governments should hold multinational enterprises headquartered or operating in their territories to the highest standards of corporate accountability and stewardship.
World Heritage sites cover approximately 0.5 per cent of the Earth’s surface. These sites support some of the planet’s most valuable ecosystems and contribute to economies through tourism, recreation and the export of resources while also providing homes to threatened species and helping counter global climate change.
The WWF report establishes five global principles that are fundamental to well-managed World Heritage sites. These principles – valuation, investment decisions, governance, policymaking and enforcement – can help decision makers achieve an appropriate and equitable balance between conservation, sustainability and development and reduce the threats to our shared World Heritage.