South Africa: A Ray of Hope for Heritage Sites Under Threat From Humans, Natural Calamities

Heritage sites are under threat from human activities as governments struggle to tame appetite for short-term economic gains that take priority over conservation.

Natural calamities are also a big danger to cultural and natural heritage sites across the globe. Other threats are human activities that include mega infrastructure developments -- such as dams and bridges -- and the mining industry.

The Heritage Committee of Unesco, last year listed 53 cultural and natural sites that were facing destruction or degradation mainly because of human activities.

This is why a group of heritage experts, academicians and political leaders organised a Webinar of November 16 to sensitise the world about the threats facing heritage.

Dubbed Our World Heritage, the initiative is demanding a fresh look at the shortcomings of the 1972 Unesco World Heritage Convention that is concerned with the conservation and the preservation of cultural properties.

The initiative wants more involvement of the civil society in conservation programmes because corporations and governments often prioritise on immediate profit, and ignore the necessity to safeguard and preserve the heritage.

According to Francesco Bandarin, one of the founders of the initiative and a former Director of the Unesco World Heritage Centre, the initiative is ready to cooperate with all international and national civil society groups operating in the field of cultural and natural heritage protection to strengthen its ability to promote change in the implementation of the World Heritage Convention.

The initiative has plans to create a global partnership network of concerned individuals, organisations and institutions, academia and professionals, to foster and strengthen information exchange over pending threats.

Irina Bokova, the director-general of Unesco, said that the convention has been ratified by all 193 United Nations member states.

New challenges

"Galvanising concerned citizens is a great idea. If we don't harness the energy of citizens, we will not be able to cope with the new challenges facing cultural heritage sites. Some people believe that heritage is in the past, but heritage is the future of humanity and heritage protection is part of sustainable development," said Ms Bokova.

The convention requires States Parties to identifying potential sites and their role in protecting and preserving them. By signing the convention, each country pledges to conserve not only the world heritage sites situated on its territory, but also to protect its national heritage.

Unesco has 1,120 entries on the World Heritage List.

Of late, the Covid-19 pandemic has also hit most sites hard because of the plunge of tourism that has reduced conservation funding.

Charlotte Karibuhoye, the director of West African programme at the Mava Foundation based in Senegal, said that nearly half of African heritage sites are either under threat or in pathetic conditions because of lack of political commitments.

"Civil society is the pillar of conservation but when it comes to policy, they are never consulted.

"It is also time to involve the indigenous communities that often live around most sites and how they can benefit so that they take keen interests in conservation," said Ms Karibuhoye.

In danger

According to a former member the World Heritage Committee, Jad Tabet from Lebanon, 34 out of the 53 sites in the List of World Heritage in Danger are in Africa and the Middle East and are facing threats due to conflicts in countries like Somalia, Mali, Libya and Yemen.

In the region, the Lake Turkana National Parks in Kenya and the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania were in July 2018 downgraded to the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The List of World Heritage in Danger is designed to inform the international community of conditions threatening the site and to encourage corrective measures by governments.

The World Heritage Committee downgraded the Lake Turkana National Parks -- that had been listed in 1997 -- citing disruptive effects of the development of Gibe III dam by Ethiopia on the flow and ecosystem of Lake Turkana downstream, and the Kuraz Sugar Development Project, which poses a further threat to the site.

In Tanzania, the Selous Game Reserve -- which was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1982 in recognition of its outstanding value as one of the largest remaining wilderness areas in Africa -- was downgraded to the endangered list because the government did not convince the committee that its plans to construct a hydropower dam at Stiegler Gorge, was not going to interfere with its outstanding universal value.

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