This year, the World Heritage Committee discussed the state of conservation of 53 of the 207 natural World Heritage sites. Of these, almost half are African sites (21 sites), writes Mariam Kenza Ali fo IUCN's World Heritage Programme as the second week of the World Heritage Committee meeting kicks off in Paris.
The fact that the Committee discussed almost 60% of all African natural sites (21 out of a total of 37 sites) is a strong indication that these sites are particularly threatened by conservation problems including poaching, armed conflict, illegal logging, agricultural encroachment, and developments such as dams, roads and mining. In contrast, only 12% of all European natural sites were discussed (8 out of a total of 68 sites).
One of the most striking and worrying trends this year is that one in four, or 24%, of all African natural sites face growing pressure from planned mining and oil and gas developments. This is a substantial increase from 16% in 2009.
If this trend continues, we may find that one in three (or even one in two) of Africa’s internationally recognised and irreplaceable natural areas are threatened by such projects in the coming years.
But how can Africa best address this trend?
As many delegations have noted throughout the meeting, African countries clearly have a legitimate need to diversify their economies and fight against poverty. Yet, the well-being of their populations, in particular local communities and indigenous peoples, ultimately depends on the continued protection of the natural environment – without which none of us can survive for very long.
Natural World Heritage sites are not only outstanding examples of the shared heritage of humankind, they are also necessary life-support systems for water, food and the air we breathe.
Currently, the many planned mining and oil and gas projects affecting African sites are still at the planning stage. This means that governments, mining and oil and gas companies, financial backers and other stakeholders have a limited window of opportunity to make the right decisions for future generations by objectively considering the three pillars of sustainable development – Environment, Society and Economy.
By committing to preserving natural World Heritage sites, which cover less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, African nations will not only fulfill their duty as signatories of the Convention, but also - and more importantly - safeguard the livelihoods of the local people whom they serve and Africa’s long-term sustainable development.