Story | 04 Mar, 2014

Global to local: How World Heritage sites can bring international conservation goals to ground level

In linking World Heritage with other international conventions, Sonia Peña Moreno takes us through the compelling evidence that conservation works and that the power of collective efforts can lead to desired positive change.

Nature conservation, and its place in sustainable development, is one of the major challenges facing the planet. The myriad of international agreements in place are essential tools in tackling biodiversity loss and preserving our future. But this is also a world full of jargon and acronyms, international meetings, networks and structures. CBD? GEO 4? NBSAPs? MEAs? These are part of the essential international framework ensuring the future of global biodiversity. And while they are inaccessible to most people, they are precisely the tools we need if we are to connect World Heritage principle and ground-level action.

One of the strengths of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention is the way it builds on the local and personal connections to exceptional places, through national and local actions which reinforce a global convention. So let me begin by saying something about my personal experience – and how my home country illustrates some of the challenges facing nature conservation globally. I am from Colombia, born in Cartagena by the Caribbean Sea on the northern coast of the country. In 1984, the Port, Fortresses and Group of Monuments, Cartagena was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. All Colombians are proud of this, just as they are proud that Colombia is one of the seventeen countries known as ‘megadiverse’ (along with others such as Brazil, Mexico, Madagascar, Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia). It hosts close to 14 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity, including the Amazon Forest, the Andes and the sub-humid ecosystem of Choco. Colombia is the only country in the South American continent with a coastline on the Pacific Ocean as well as the Caribbean; the second in the world in the variety of bird and flower species, the diversity of its population and the number of its outstanding musicians, writers, artists and singers.

Destruction of forests

Unfortunately, a considerable proportion of Colombia’s ecosystems has been destroyed to make way for agricultural development, mainly in the Andean and Caribbean regions. Almost 95 per cent of the country’s dry forests, including close to 70 per cent of typical Andean forests, have been destroyed in this way. Some of the main threats to the conservation of biological diversity include population migrations resulting from internal armed conflict, agriculture, degradation of habitat, and the growing presence of invasive species and pollution.

Unfortunately, this alarming situation is far from unique and now we face an unprecedented biodiversity crisis worldwide. Everywhere we hear that biodiversity loss has breached the so-called ‘safe planetary boundaries’. Scientists warn that biodiversity and the associated ecosystem services are expected to continue their serious decline with major consequences for the life support systems of this planet.

Recently, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the fourth Global Environment Outlook (GEO4), the third Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO3) and many other authoritative environmental assessments have come to similar conclusions. The status of biological diversity at all levels – ecosystems, species and genetic diversity – continues to deteriorate. GBO3 points out that the main direct drivers of this situation are climate change, habitat degradation, habitat loss, invasive alien species, overexploitation, unsustainable use and pollution. But this ‘doom and gloom’ picture will not be much help if we want to change the situation for the better. In fact, the declining status of biodiversity calls for concerted strategic responses, policies and actions across the board and at all levels. Easier said than done...

Fortunately, there is compelling evidence that conservation works and that the power of collective will leads to desired positive change. Take for example the cases of three species that were extinct in the wild and have been reintroduced in their natural environment: the California condor and the black-footed ferret in the United States, and Przewalski’s horse in Mongolia. And whilst a study released in 2010 confirms previous reports of continued losses in biodiversity, it also highlights sixty-four mammal, bird and amphibian species that have improved their status thanks to successful conservation action. It is also the first such study to present clear evidence of the positive impact of conservation efforts around the globe. Results show that the status of biodiversity would have declined by nearly 20 per cent if conservation action had not been taken.

Since 1972 a wide range of environmental and sustainable development issues has been addressed at the global level and we have moved from sectoral treaties on endangered species to framework agreements. Multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) relating to the environment institute legally binding agreements between several states, and serve as instruments destined to move the environmental agenda forward and keep pace with scientific developments. International agreements have been used as foundations to encourage and establish management frameworks devised to anchor practical international activity touching upon environmental conservation.

Indeed, intensified treatymaking is a sign that governments have recognized that many environmental issues extend beyond national boundaries, that international cooperation is required to address them and that our global environment requires collective protection. It is thus somewhat paradoxical that in spite of the proliferation of international instruments and institutional arrangements designed to protect the environment, the situation is far from rosy for our aching planet. What have the 300 or so MEAs specifically done to reverse these negative trends and environmental decline?

Conventions on conservation

Let us take a closer look at two international agreements. With the alarming rate of biodiversity loss at all levels and the catastrophic impacts on human well-being increasingly better documented, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was inspired by the international community’s commitment to biodiversity conservation, sustainable use and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits. Adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, entered into force in 1993 with the consent of 193 Parties, the CBD is an almost universal agreement and an all encompassing legally binding instrument which recognized for the first time that the conservation of biodiversity is a ‘common concern of humankind’ and an integral part of development. In short, the CBD is a landmark global agreement that takes a holistic approach to conservation and aims at achieving sustainable development and maintaining life on this planet.

The 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage came into being through the merging of two distinct ideas: one of these aimed at the preservation of cultural sites, and another at fostering the conservation of nature and all its wonders. In the words of Kishore Rao, Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, in its forty years of existence the Convention has become the most successful international instrument to identify the most exceptional natural places in the world – sites characterized by their outstanding biodiversity, ecosystems, geology or superb natural phenomena. The World Heritage Convention has provided international recognition to well over 10 per cent of the total expanse of protected areas in the world, and while certain gaps in the World Heritage List remain, it currently protects an extremely valuable sample of our natural heritage.

How is a World Heritage site different from a nationally recognized heritage site? The answer is Outstanding Universal Value (OUV). Paragraph 49 of the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention states that OUV ‘means cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity. As such, the permanent protection of this heritage is of the highest importance to the international community as a whole.’ Ultimately, these are places that are so extraordinary that the international community has expressly made a commitment through the World Heritage Convention to protect and maintain them.

It seems that the application of OUV to determine natural sites of importance for humanity at the end of the day implies that the preservation of nature is a ‘common concern of humankind’ – the common responsibility of us all. Both conventions, the one on Biodiversity and the one on World Heritage, thus provide the international community with a wide framework for specific action designed to protect and preserve natural resources for present and future generations.

Other international agreements have also done their share. In South America, protected areas, along with the combined efforts of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Vicuña Convention, helped to spark the recovery of the vicuña. In the recent past and in response to the findings and recommendations of the global assessments mentioned above, Parties to various MEAs, including the CBD, the WHC, CITES, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS), the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar) and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) have repeatedly called for the implementation of enhanced synergies between MEAs to tackle biodiversity loss. It has become evident that no one policy framework alone is able to change or reverse the situation. As a result, a number of governing bodies have taken decisions to encourage ‘synergetic’ policy measures. All in all, these decisions have generally reiterated the importance of collaboration and strategic cooperation among the different MEAs (including proposals for joint programmes and meetings of the States Parties concerned), recognized the relevance of enhancing synergies, and stressed the role of specific collaborative activities at the global, regional and national levels.

Institutional arrangements and mechanisms should also be mentioned as they have helped to advance this ‘synergy agenda’. Among them are the Biodiversity Liaison Group (BLG), the group of the Chairs of the Scientific Advisory Bodies of the Biodiversity-related Conventions (CSAB), the Issue Management Group on Biodiversity of the United Nations Environment Management Group (IMGEMG) which includes representatives of all UN agencies and some observers – including IUCN, but also many others.

Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020

In October 2010, Parties to the CBD adopted the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020. This is a broad-based plan devised to inspire action by all countries and stakeholders to tackle biodiversity loss. The Strategic Plan comprises a Vision for 2050, a Mission for 2020, five Strategic Goals and twenty so-called Aichi Biodiversity Targets. It presents an overarching framework with a view to promote coherent and effective implementation of the three objectives of the CBD. The ‘Big Plan’ provides an ambitious policy framework not only for the CBD and the biodiversity-related conventions but also for the entire international community and the United Nations system.

Through Decision X/2, Parties to the CBD adopted the Strategic Plan and also agreed to translate the plan into national biodiversity strategies and action plans (NBSAPs) taking into consideration the biodiversity trends and particularities of their respective countries. The decision also called for other biodiversity-related conventions and agreements to take appropriate steps to facilitate coherent and synergistic implementation of the Strategic Plan and the Aichi Targets at all levels, including collaboration in the update and implementation of the NBSAPs. The latter provide a roadmap on how any given country intends to fulfil the objectives of the CBD in light of its specific national circumstances. Because of their nature, NBSAPs are also the appropriate instruments for achieving coordinated and consistent implementation of the biodiversity-related conventions: the broad scope of the CBD encompasses the objectives and provisions of the other conventions and through NBSAPs harmony in national planning can be achieved.

At its last session in Cambodia in June 2013, the World Heritage Committee in close up 37 COM5A ‘further requests the World Heritage Centre to continue its cooperation with the Biodiversity Liaison Group to create further synergies between the conventions, but also between the joint activities initiated with the Secretariats of the CITES, Ramsar Convention and the Council of Europe, and States Parties to ensure that their National Biodiversity Strategy and their Action Plans fully acknowledge the importance of natural World Heritage sites in any attempt to achieve the Aichi Biodiversity Targets’. CMS and CITES have already developed guidelines on the integration of relevant issues, policy measures and practical actions from their respective processes into NBSAPs.Through the Biodiversity Liaison Group, the six biodiversity-related conventions are working to enhance synergies and national implementation with a view to achieving the Aichi Targets, while also harmonizing reporting processes, participating in training workshops, sharing of scientific data and expertise, exchanging experiences, and so on.

All this synergistic diplomacy is surely welcomed and warmly encouraged, but how far can it go to lead to real and urgently needed transformative action on the ground?

Biodiversity in Colombia

I return to Colombia, and more specifically to two natural sites inscribed on the World Heritage List. The first, Los Katíos National Park, extends over 72,000 ha in north-western Colombia, and comprises low hills, forests and humid plains. An exceptional biological diversity is found in the park, which is home to many threatened animal species as well as many endemic plants. Inscribed in 1994, the park was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2009 by recommendation of IUCN and in accordance with Colombia’s request. Illegal logging was the main concern.

The second site, Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary, inscribed in 2006, is located some 500 km off the coast of Colombia and includes Malpelo island (350 ha) and the surrounding marine environment (857,150 ha). This immense marine park, the biggest nofishing zone in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, together with Galápagos Islands (Ecuador), represents a key stepping-stone for the conservation of marine biodiversity in the Pacific, and provides a vital habitat for internationally threatened marine species. It is called to action in order to address this situation. As a result, success stories and restorations are not rare. Take the case of Chitwan National Park in Nepal, which hosts about 400 greater one-horned rhinoceros characteristic of South Asia. The World Heritage Committee, in the early 1990s, challenged the findings of the environmental impact assessment of the proposed Rapti River Diversion Project. The Asian Development Bank and the Government of Nepal revised the assessment and found that the project would threaten riparian habitats critical to the rhino inside Royal Chitwan. The project was thus rejected and this World Heritage site was preserved for the benefit of future generations.

The conscientious inclusion of Los Katíos and Malpelo in Colombia’s revised NBSAP and national protected areas policies would definitely be a step in the right direction and further synergies between the CBD and the WHC. Ideally, this will trigger national action and draw international attention to issues of improved management of these sites. Used in this way, World Heritage sites can become flagships of best practice, grounds for further success stories and pilots for the implementation of the Strategic Plan and Aichi Biodiversity Targets at national level. This confirms that the World Heritage Convention is a remarkably useful mechanism for concrete action in preserving threatened sites, ecosystems and endangered species and ultimately a powerful tool to raise awareness and rally action through focused campaigns. Reaching conservation goals results from the recognition of the outstanding values of these sites in terms of human survival. Each and every site is thus essential for the preservation of our common heritage for now and forever.

This article was published in the latest issue of UNESCO's World Heritage magazine.