Monday, October 18, 2010

Endangered UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Can They be Saved?

The Great Wall of ChinaSimatai, China (photo by Simone Cannon)

"Taking action for the World Heritage is above all a celebration of the Earth, its environment and centuries of man-made accomplishments. Each one of us can make a gesture for the preservation of this legacy for the benefit of all." - UNESCO World Heritage Website

 Last week, I wrote about the branch of the Untied Nations known as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the organization's list of World Heritage Sites. UNESCO's stated mission is "to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice the rule of law, and human rights along with fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the UN Charter." Part of that charter is to preserve natural, cultural and historic sites around the world in order for citizens of all countries to be able to visit, enjoy, and learn from them. Individually, many of these sites combine several elements of cultural heritage criteria. For example, Quebrada de Humahuaca, in Northern Argentina, not only represents the colorful and majestic beauty of the natural world, but also important historic architecture and significant South American cultural and artistic developments. Unfortunately, this stunningly beautiful area of Argentina is not immune to damage wrought by natural causes such as weather and erosion or those of human activities, such as careless tourism or vandalism. These irreplaceable sites represent multi-dimensional and direct links to our past and should be preserved at all costs.   

Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Even though many of these UNESCO sites are not listed as officially endangered, they remain in constant peril. Unlike historical treasures protected within the walls of museums, many sites are under threat of natural erosion, acid rain, neglect, pollution, vandalism, violent political acts and warfare. The 2,000 year old Great Wall of China, for example, a World Heritage site, although not part of the UNESCO List in Danger, is constantly fighting off the effects of earthquakes, storms and natural aging, but also deliberate human acts such as the theft of bricks, soil and stones for use as building materials, large scale construction near the wall (highways, shopping complexes), tourist traffic and littering, and well-intentioned, but poorly executed wall repairs. Many parts of the wall have already collapsed or started to collapse, but the sheer length of the wall at 8,851.8 km (5,500.3 mi), including all its branches, makes it nearly impossible to protect and maintain without an enormous global community effort. The Florida Everglades, 1.5 million acres of wetlands and subtropical wilderness in the southern United States has been placed on the endangered list because of a rapidly deteriorating ecosystem, due to natural and human causes. According to UNESCO, "Water inflows have been reduced by up to 60 percent and nutrient pollution increased to the point where the site is showing significant signs of eutrophication, loss of marine habitat and a subsequent decline in marine species."

  Alligator closely watching a shorebird, Everglades National Park, Florida, USA (photo by Simone Cannon)

"Universal enjoyment of heritage generates a global obligation of solidarity" - Marcio Barbosa, Deputy Director-General of UNESCO.

 Even though the preservation of important natural, cultural and historic sites seems challenging, there are plenty of things that private citizens and organizations can do to help. Monetary donations are the most direct way to support UNESCO and its projects, but you or your organization can also become a UNESCO partner, or join the UNESCO interning or volunteering programs. Even if you choose not to join UNESCO, you can practice sustainable tourism by respecting local culture and customs and not damaging sites or littering when visiting. It is important to continue to visit sites, even endangered ones (assuming that there is no immediate physical threat to visitors, such as warfare or violent crime), so as to contribute to the local economy and to draw attention to the constant need for repair and renovation.

The Taj Majal, Agra, India (World Heritage Site, Inscription 1983) (photo by Simone Cannon)

Also, many governments are much more likely to invest funds for security or to keep a site from falling into disrepair if they think that they are responsible for a popular tourist attraction, a surefire way for both locals and government to generate income. Local environmental activists can have a huge positive impact on cultural sites. Although still in danger, the Taj Majal, in Agra, India, has largely had the devastating effects of industrial and automobile pollution mitigated thanks in great part to the efforts of local activists' petitions, large-scale protests, and court cases in India's Supreme Court challenging urban development projects. Lastly, you can help by creating an awareness of the importance of preserving these invaluable sites by sharing news and links through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. As quoted on UNESCO's World Heritage site, we can work together to "encourage international cooperation in the conservation of our world's cultural and natural heritage" to preserve our world for ourselves and future generations. 

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