A window on the world

01 June 2011 | News story

Mariam Kenza Ali has a job that many people would envy. She is part of a global team trying to make sure that the planet’s most iconic natural sites are secure for future generations to enjoy.

As a World Heritage Conservation Officer with IUCN, Mariam acts as a go-between among the people working at the ground level in World Heritage sites all over the world and those at the international policy level.

“My job is mainly about people,” says Mariam. “I talk to people who either work in a World Heritage site either as researchers or managers, or staff of local NGOs, find out what the challenges are and how they can be addressed. I then help feed these issues up to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.”

The World Heritage Convention addresses conservation issues in World Heritage sites, providing support in times of conflict and inspiring communities and nations to do more to preserve their natural heritage. But despite the progress achieved, many of the 200 or so natural and ‘mixed’ World Heritage sites continue to face serious pressures including from mining and illegal logging, road building, poaching, agricultural encroachment, and armed conflict.

Mariam is part of an IUCN team that monitors the status of these exceptional sites to identify serious issues as early as possible and bring them to the attention of the World Heritage Committee and the international community. 

“The main challenge in conserving World Heritage sites is trying to balance the needs of nature with the needs of people. There are so many opinions about these sites and how they should be managed that it’s important to present a balanced, objective view, and that means talking to a lot of people!”

The World Heritage community can and does act quickly to address threats to sites, explains Mariam. Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been on the World Heritage Danger List since the mid 1990s due to civil war and poaching. Recently, the DRC government granted oil exploration permits in the park without carrying out impact assessments.

“This would be disastrous for the park. It’s one of the last bastions of mountain gorillas,” says Mariam. “UNESCO organized a high level meeting in Kinshasa on all DRC World Heritage sites which resulted in a ‘Kinshasa Declaration’ backed by the President which meant the permits were eventually frozen. This buys time to carry out a proper assessment of the situation.”

Local knowledge is critical in drawing attention to the challenges facing World Heritage sites explains Mariam, citing the example of Kenya’s Lake Turkana, an area rich in wildlife.

“A youth participant spoke out at an international biodiversity conference last year about the threats posed to Lake Turkana from a dam that was being built upstream in neighbouring Ethiopia. None of us knew about the dam or the impact it would have, but as a result of this woman’s action, we are now in touch with local grassroots conservation organizations and this issue is being brought to the attention of the international community.”

Although she doesn’t get to travel to World Heritage sites as much as she would like, a definite highlight for Mariam was a visit to Virgin Komi Forests, a World Heritage site in Russia, 50km from Arctic Circle. Mercury poisoning from past gold mining activities had ravaged some of the area’s rivers leaving them ecologically dead. With the recent hike in gold prices, there is now pressure for a 20km2 mining concession.

“We talked to the indigenous Komi people, who don’t want mining to go ahead. They sent a statement to IUCN, calling for our help and we are now presenting their concerns,” says Mariam.

The World Heritage Convention is a legal instrument that countries sign up to, explains Mariam. “It says that natural sites, by definition of being World Heritage, belong to all people of the world, not just to a single country. The international community has a responsibility to manage these sites and intervene when necessary. To me, that’s the cornerstone of the Convention.”

Mariam feels strongly about the need to stave off the many pressures facing natural World Heritage sites that are often the last refuges for wildlife and traditional ways of life.

“There are some places that should be sacrosanct. These sites are the best of the best. If we can’t save them, then what can we save?”

Mariam can be contacted at: mariamkenza.ali@iucn.org