Protecting The Wonders Of The World

Camille Agon

July 11 2008

At its annual meeting in Quebec City this week, UNESCO’s World
Heritage Committee added another 27 sites to its already burgeoning
list of places of "outstanding universal value." Now wooden churches
in Slovakia, Weimar-era housing projects in Berlin, and Armenian
monasteries in Iran have been granted the same hallowed status as
the Statue of Liberty, Stonehenge, and the Temple of Angkor Wat. And
why not? There are plenty of ways to define "a human masterpiece of
creative genius," one of the several criteria for inclusion. But
now that World Heritage Status has been bestowed on 878 sites,
some wonder whether UNESCO has the wherewithal — and the will —
to protect its designated sites adequately.

Francesco Bandarin, the director of the World Heritage Center, ,
insists it does. The List is part of a convention adopted by UNESCO
in 1972 meant "to recognize and protect the world’s most significant
cultural and natural sites," he says. "Over the last 36 years,
the Committee and UNESCO have continued to work in line with its
original mission." The benefits of getting on the list, he says,
include increased visibility, more funding, and access to UNESCO’s
"knowledge and experience." Including private donations, the WHC has
an annual budget of about $20 million; most countries are expected
to implement and fund their own protection plans.

The mere designation as a World Heritage site, of course, can be a
boon: when the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire, England, was accorded
World Heritage Status in 1986, says Stuart Smith, a former director
of the museum there, "People suddenly realized they were living in
an incredible site. They started to appreciate it and respect it."

But increased public awareness can be a mixed blessing. In his
book Disappearing World: 101 of the Earth’s Most Extraordinary
and Endangered Places , heritage consultant Alonzo Addison lists
unsustainable tourism as one of the key threats to the world’s cultural
and natural wonders. And there is no doubt that a site’s presence
on the World Heritage List enhances tourist appeal. "A lot of state
parties are tempted to change this from being an environmental and
cultural treaty into a tourism promotion committee," says Lincoln
Siliakus, an activist with the Wilderness Society of Australia who
was in Quebec City for the WHC meeting."

Indeed, many preservationists see the WHC as instinctively reluctant
to declare sites endangered without a go-ahead from the government
involved. It’s one thing to decry the damage earthquakes wrought upon
the Iranian city of Bam, protracted civil war on the national parks of
the Congo, or the Taliban’s 2003 dynamiting of the massive Buddhas of
Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. It is clearly another for the Committee
to confront the frequently negative impact that unchecked development
or mismanagement can have on sensitive locations.

In fact, no sites were added to the endangered list at this year’s
WHC conclave. Last year the Committee said it would de-list the
Elbe Valley in the German city of Dresden if construction proceeded
on a four-lane bridge that activists said would damage the valley’s
delicate landscape. Now that bridge is under construction — but the
Committee ruled it would "give Dresden more time" in the hope that
local opposition could reverse the damage.

Another highly controversial candidate for sanction also managed to
dodge a public bullet — for now. The prehistoric wall paintings of
the Lascaux Caves in Southwestern France have been under threat for
years from a series of fungus outbreaks that many feel were brought
on or exacerbated by the French government’s mismanagement of the
site. The US-based International Committee for the Preservation of
Lascaux (ICPL) argued before the Committee for sanctions, and its
chair, Laurence Léauté-Beasley, says Lascaux "came very close" to
being placed on the endangered list. Instead, the French government
agreed to a closer WHC monitoring of the site. "France will now have
to answer to the world community," she says. "They will have to be
transparent and accountable for the actions they have taken in the
past and will take in the future in the treatment of Lascaux." If
those efforts aren’t sufficient, Léauté-Beasley says, the committee
"retains the real option of inscribing Lascaux on the List of World
Heritage in Danger 2009." The hope is that conditions of the caves’
17,000-year-old art will improve to the point where the seriousness
of that threat won’t come to the test.