New landmark sites for people, place and identity – IUCN’s key takeaways from the 2018 World Heritage Committee meeting

Returning from the 42nd World Heritage Committee meeting in Manama, in the Kingdom of Bahrain, Peter Shadie, IUCN’s World Heritage Senior Advisor and head of the IUCN delegation at the Committee, takes a moment to share some reflections on this year’s meeting.

The Kingdom of Bahrain was simply a superb host to this year’s Committee. Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa masterfully steered the Committee through 10 concentrated days of work and our hosts offered faultless organization and an outstanding purpose-built venue. Overseen by the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, we enjoyed outstanding hospitality in the vibrant and culturally diverse city of Manama.

The Committee was preceded by several very successful forums seeking to engage youth, civil society and site managers – all of which made their voices heard at the Committee. It was also wonderful to work closely with our long term partners the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage in their ‘hometown’. We have been proud partners of the Centre for more than 10 years doing great work on natural heritage in the Arab States. Great strides have been made but of course more needs to be done to boost the recognition of outstanding natural heritage in this region.

As I leave the Committee, a few thoughts are uppermost in my mind:

World Heritage for people, place and identity!

This year saw the uplifting inscription of two large intact indigenous territories: Pimachiowin Aki in Canada’s boreal forest and Chiribiquete National Park in the heart of Colombia, both among the largest World Heritage sites on the planet. For me, these places typify what the Convention is all about, protecting exceptional sites where humans and nature have been intertwined over the millennia.

In the case of Pimachiowin Aki, globally significant ecological values, coupled with the ancestral lands of the Anishinaabe people, cement the idea that heritage is about people, place and identity. Pimachiowin Aki sets a new benchmark being driven by First Nations who have invested in the Convention as they believe it is the right tool to protect their land and way of life. Let’s hope we see more of these types of nominations. It augurs well as the 42nd Session also coincided with launch of an Indigenous Peoples’ Forum, an overdue initiative to strengthen indigenous peoples’ networks and engagement with the Convention.

A Committee of contrasts

We continue to receive mixed messages from the World Heritage Committee – on one hand, enthusiastic commendation for sites like Chiribiquete; on the other hand, the Committee chose to ignore the recommendation of the advisory body on culture, ICOMOS to not inscribe two sites and flipped these to inscriptions. It is a regrettable new low in a trend for the Committee to significantly depart from the independent technical advice of its own Advisory Bodies: a trend which risks diluting the high standards which have been the hallmark of this Convention for over 40 years.  Debates in the plenary as well as in the corridors also expose divided views on where the Convention needs to head to. Some advocating, in a world of increasing pressure on World Heritage sites, a tightening of quality standards, whilst others promote the need for new paradigms with more flexibility to accommodate development.

Danger listing has an image problem

The contrasts continued with the positive news of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System coming off the List of World Heritage in Danger, a result of sustained commitment and impressive collective action. However, Lake Turkana in Kenya was placed on the Danger List in response to threats from neighbouring developments in Ethiopia, highlighting the shared responsibility all nations must take to protect sites even beyond their own territories. The threat of large-scale forest logging in the core of the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania was added as a further reason for Danger Listing of this site.

IUCN had come into this Committee expressing serious concerns about the Socotra Archipelago in Yemen. Our recommendation for Danger Listing was based on multiple and fast moving threats to this remarkably biodiverse-rich site, often called the Galapagos of the east. In this case, the prospects for danger-listing proved to be a trigger for urgent discussions between the State Party of Yemen and other partners to address the issues affecting Socotra. As a result we have an agreed roadmap including a mission and international cooperation to move forward.

All that said, it is clear the Danger List has an image problem. Twenty-three sites have been on the World Heritage Danger List for 10 years or more. While the Danger List is meant as a constructive mechanism to mobilize action, countries remain reluctant to voluntarily adopt it. To be a catalyst it needs a makeover to be seen as a more positive process. Most importantly it needs to be attached to a more substantial funding mechanism so that it becomes an incentive for countries to see costed and timetable action plans realized.

The need for reform is greater than ever

It is clear that bold reforms are urgently needed to ensure credibility, effective working methods and the resourcing needed to properly service the Convention. Above all we all need more time – one senses an overall fatigue among all of us as trying to cope with the increasing complexity and sheer volume of work.

In a joint statement by all three Advisory Bodies – IUCN, ICOMOS and ICCROM – we noted that we “share a long-term commitment to the ideals of the World Heritage Convention, and also share the collective responsibility for its integrity. We hold long-term institutional memory which can make a valuable contribution on points of consistency and precedent. We also provide the global perspective that is essential for a convention based on Outstanding Universal Value.”

IUCN, along with our Advisory Body colleagues, are ready to continue the journey toward a healthy future for the World Heritage Convention that strengthens its credibility. I continue to be optimistic about the future – we should not lose sight of what a powerful rallying point for conservation this Convention continues to be! 

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