UNESCO | World heritage

World heritage or wheat?

UNESCO's World Heritage Convention turns 50 this year. There's plenty of cause for celebration but also for concern amid loud calls for reform.

A small group of people with black skin color stands on a green meadow. The part of the group wears red/brown checkered capes, the other part brown capes. One person looks into the camera. In the background is a tree, behind it is a precipice.

Maasai on the edge of the Nigorongoro Crater in Tanzania, a World Heritage Site since 1979. The government wants to promote tourism, the Maasai are to be resettled

Usually you have to celebrate holidays on the day they fall. And the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, set up to protect 1,154 cultural and natural sites, is 50 years old this year. Of course, it’s an anniversary that the international community can take pride in - but for many, there’s a slightly bitter taste to the champagne toast.

Among them is Stephan Dömpke, founder and director of World Heritage Watch, an umbrella organisation of international non-governmental organisations based in Germany.  “World heritage – that [idea] had a very positive image at first,” Dömpke says. “Everyone just thought that’s just great”, and they didn’t really question it any further. People rarely take a closer look at what’s actually happening on the ground.” But a closer look is exactly what is needed, Dömpke and other world heritage watchers argue, especially on this 50th anniversary.

To put it more bluntly, the UNESCO World Heritage Convention isn’t just about noble values and conservation. A lot of the decisions being made about certain heritage sites are political and not always in the best interests of locals. This is why Dömpke is among those calling for reforms of the original Convention during its birthday year. Above all, the critics of the Convention want to see more participation from civil society organisations when World Heritage status is awarded somewhere.

“Often the situation is more complicated than that – for example, when local authorities use the new heritage status as a way to introduce rules or to push people out, all in their own interest. ”

Of the many World Heritage sites, 218 are based on what is known as “natural heritage”. However conservation needs in these areas sometimes conflict with what the local people need. Indeed, it may even threaten the existence of the indigenous inhabitants. Dömpke recalls when he was a consultant for the European Union in the Pamir Mountains, a mountain range between central, south and east Asia, mostly in Tajikistan. To this day he recalls the “terrible poverty and living conditions” there. Semi-nomadic herders from nearby Kyrgyzstan live in the sparse, mountain ranges and the very few opportunities they had to pasture their livestock were further restricted when the area was declared a World Heritage site in 2013. “The World Heritage evaluation committees often believe that the areas they’re looking at are uninhabited but that is obviously wrong,” Dömpke said. 

At the same time It’s not always UNESCO, with its strict requirements, that adds to the growing misery of the indigenous people. Often the situation is more complicated than that – for example, when local authorities use the new heritage status as a way to introduce rules or to push people out, all in their own interest. An example of this kind of thing is what happened in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, at the edge of the Serengeti in Tanzania. Early in 2021, a local non-governmental organisation, PINGO, conducted a field study there and surveyed countless locals living there. All of them spoke of hunger, depression and a loss of hope for the future.

In 1959, the area was designated as a “multiple land use area” and the semi-nomadic Masai people living there were allowed to engage in agriculture and graze animals there. But this decision was later revised.
In 1979, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites; in 1981 it was designated a biosphere reserve and in 2010, it was also listed as a cultural property on the World Heritage List.

Agriculture is now forbidden in this protected area and even the nomads’ herds are no longer allowed to graze in some parts of it. Things are getting worse here. Critics accuse the Tanzanian government of planning to push tens of thousands of Masai out of the area. Supposedly this is a reaction to concerns expressed by UNESCO about the unhappy state of the Ngorongoro site, the organisation Rainforest Rescue explains. But that’s just an excuse, the organisation argues. In reality, authorities are trying to promote more tourism.

“At some sites, even objectives most would consider practical end up leading to conflicts.”

“We are continuously finding that the rights of the indigenous population, that are anchored in international law, are not being respected,” says Chris Chapman, Amnesty International’s Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Adviser. When it comes to decisions about nature reserves, the “free, prior and informed consent” of local indigenous people is often ignored, he notes.

In 2017, Gabriel Lafitte, an independent expert on Tibet and Kate Saunders from the International Campaign for Tibet cautioned about giving in to China’s application to have the Qinghai Hoh Xil  plateau in Tibet recognised as a world heritage site. The region is as big as Denmark and the Netherlands put together and it is filled with lakes and wild animals. But Heritage status would only help China depopulate the area of local Tibetans and allow the Chinese authorities to complete plans for mass tourism there, the critical couple say.

Despite the warnings, Hoh Xil became a world heritage site anyway in 2017. Amnesty’s Chapman explains why the UNESCO committee went ahead, despite the concerns. “You have to understand that it’s not independent experts sitting on these world heritage committees,” he says. “They are government representatives and diplomats from the  respective countries.”

At some sites, even objectives most would consider practical end up leading to conflicts. For example, a ramp for the disabled at the Acropolis in Athens. At the centre of that scrap was the question of what was more valued? Preserving The original condition of the antiquities at a world heritage site or access to the Acropolis for handicapped and elderly people?

UNESCO’s Paris-based headquarters has found it difficult to come up with definitive statements on these issues. 

“The list of world heritage sites doesn’t have to keep growing so quickly. ”

At the end of last year this resulted in an meeting organised by World Heritage Watch, which is based in Potsdam, Germany. Invitees included the group former directors and pioneers of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention as well as senior former staffers at the advisory body International Council on Monuments and Sites and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The summit resulted in a 12 point plan to reform the original World Heritage Convention, that many of the attendees found agreeable. Besides arguing for more participation from civil society groups, one of the main tenets of the plan for reform was the de-politicisation of world heritage decisions. Other suggested reforms included an emphasis on sustainable tourism as well as the idea of establishing a “buffer zone” around sites that would protect things like viewing areas, for instance.

Additionally the reformers argued that the list of heritage sites didn’t need to keep growing at the same rate. One suggestion was that European countries that already had a lot of heritage sites could set applications for new sites aside for a while, so that other regions of the world had more opportunity to have their sites considered.

It remains to be seen whether the UNESCO World Heritage Convention’s birthday results in more than just celebrations and whether age brings self-consciousness about the organisation’s problems, and also potential solutions to them.

In fact, recent events have proven yet again Just how political the body is, according to World Heritage Watch’s latest report. Because of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia was supposed to be removed from its seat on the organisation’s decision-making committee. But no concrete decisions have been made about this as yet. The committee meeting scheduled for June 2022 was supposed to take place in Kazan, in Russia and under a Russian presidency. The meeting has been postponed and had not yet been rescheduled at the time of writing.

World Heritage Watch has also expressed concern about the potential destruction of heritage sites in Ukraine, places like the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv. Thankfully that hasn’t happened, the organisations Dömpke noted, even though the ongoing war continues to put Ukrainian heritage and cultural history at risk.