Industrial expansion threatens half of natural World Heritage Sites

The Ecologist
April 6th 2016

Precious World Heritage Sites that protect vital biodiversity and human cultures are at risk from oil decelopment and other industries. Under threat are not just nature, wildlife, land and water but the 11 million people who depend on the 114 sites' environmental quality for their livelihoods.

We need to turn away from harmful industrial activities and focus on sustainable alternatives that enhance World Heritage sites, their values and the benefits they provide, especially to local communities.

Nearly half of all natural and mixed World Heritage sites are threatened by harmful industrial activities, according to a new WWF report released today.

These hugely valuable sites, which protect fragile environments and provide vital resources to millions of people, are at risk worldwide from threats ranging from oil and gas exploration to mining and illegal logging.

Sites at risk include the Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon National Park, the Belize Barrier Reef, Lake Malawi National Parkand the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries - see detail of threats below.

According to the study, 114 of the 229 natural and mixed World Heritage sites have oil, gas or mining concessions overlapping them or they are under threat from at least one other harmful industrial activity. The report also shows that over 20% of natural World Heritage sites face threats from multiple harmful industrial activities.

"World Heritage sites cover approximately 0.5% of the Earth's surface and include some of the most valuable and unique places on the planet. Yet even this small fraction of our planet isn't receiving the protection it deserves", said David Nussbaum, CEO of WWF-UK.

"These areas contribute to our economies through tourism and natural resources, providing livelihoods for millions of people, while also supporting some of the planet's most valuable ecosystems, so we need to work together now to ensure they are properly protected."

Over 11 million people need World Heritage Sites intact!

World Heritage sites could help to play a key role in achieving the global sustainable development goals agreed last year by UN member states. According to the report, 90% of natural World Heritage sites provide jobs and benefits that extend far beyond their boundaries.

More than 11 million people depend on World Heritage sites for food, water, shelter and medicine, and could be negatively affected by the impacts of harmful industrial activities conducted at large-scale.

In one example cited in the report, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System is shown to be at risk from unsustainable coastal construction, large-scale mangrove clearance, harmful agricultural run-off and the potential of dangerous oil exploration. These threats put the well-being of 190,000 people - half of Belize's population - at risk.

WWF is calling on national governments to ensure that no harmful industrial activities are permitted in World Heritage sites or in areas that could negatively affect them, and to hold multinational enterprises headquartered or operating in their territories to the highest standards of corporate accountability and stewardship.

"Governments and businesses need to prioritize long-term value over short-term revenue and respect the status of these incredible places", said Nussbaum. "We need to turn away from harmful industrial activities and focus on sustainable alternatives that enhance World Heritage sites, their values and the benefits they provide, especially to local communities."

Among other measures listed in the report, WWF is asking the private sector to make commitments to refrain from activities that threaten to degrade World Heritage sites. Financing should also be withheld from projects involving harmful industrial activities in World Heritage sites or the companies conducting them.

Case Studies

Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries - Wolong, Mt Siguniang and Jiajin Mountains: Road and dam developments inside the site, as well as mining, translocation of local residents, an emphasis on tourism development rather than conservation, a preoccupation with new developments following earthquake events and a temptation to accelerate ecological restoration through reforestation with arguably inappropriate tree species

Grand Canyon National Park: Uranium mining on the park boundary in its watershed, commercial development in the Little Colorado area in the park, development outside of the headquarters area, development, infrastructure and funding issues, operation of Glen Canyon dam, and the need to complete plans for significant resources like caves, backcountry and other resources.

Mining, grazing, timber harvesting and water withdrawal may degrade native plant communities, destroy wildlife habitat, interrupt migration corridors, and disturb wildlife breeding activities. Ecological research shows significant impacts on the park from the construction and operation of Glen Canyon Dam.

If the drought continues and water demand out of the park remains continued impacts will take place. This is an ongoing threat to the long term health of the canyon ecosystem.

Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System: Coastal development, tourism growth, overfishing, invasive species and the multiple impacts of climate change (coral reef bleaching events, increased frequency and severity of storms; and sea level rise) are all very serious factors that negatively affect the overall integrity of the site.

The most serious potential threat to the values of the site is, however, oil exploration and drilling. Until the Government places the site and its buffer zone off-limits to oil exploration, the conservation outlook for the site is of significant concern.

Read more here.