World Heritage Convention turns forty
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, one of UNESCO’s most successful programmes and one of the most powerful tools for heritage preservation. Almost universally adopted, with 188 signatory countries, the Convention is unique in that it combines the protection of cultural and natural heritage in one instrument. Since its adoption by the General Conference of UNESCO in 1972, the World Heritage List has grown to include 936 sites inscribed for their outstanding universal value in 153 countries around the world.
UNESCO’s international 1960 campaign to help Egypt and Sudan save Abu Simbel and other Nubian temples from flooding by the Aswan High Dam on the Nile galvanized the international community around heritage and our shared responsibility in its safeguarding. André Malraux, France’s Culture Minister at the time, said that through the campaign “the first world civilization publicly proclaims the world’s art as its indivisible heritage.”
Some 50 countries made financial contributions which funded half of the $80 million cost of the campaign to move the monuments out of harm’s way.
The drafting of the World Heritage Convention was inspired by the international synergy of this great project as well as subsequent UNESCO campaigns during the 1960s to conserve treasures such as the city of Venice, Italy, after the great flood of 1966, the threatened Bronze Age city of Moenjodaro in Pakistan, and the Buddhist temple compounds of Borobodur, Indonesia.
Since its adoption, and the inscription of the first sites on the World Heritage List in 1978, the Convention has grown and evolved to reflect the needs of the vastly different sites that have been identified and protected.
Cultural landscapes, transboundary sites, thematic programmes dedicated to Marine Heritage, World Heritage Forests, Sustainable Tourism, Earthen Architecture, and Small Island Developing States have all been established to address the specific needs of these sites. The List of World Heritage in Danger helps draw support for sites that are under threat from climate change, conflict, poaching, urban sprawl etc.
Over the years, nearly one thousand unique, and often threatened, heritage properties have been identified. Their protection has been improved as has been access for the benefit of present and future generations. Here are just a few examples of the many successes of the World Heritage Convention: interventions have prevented unsightly constructions in historic cities such as London, Vienna, Macao and St Petersburg. Large-scale renovation projects have been carried out at sites like Angkor and ground-breaking case studies have been published on the effects of climate change on sites around the world. There have also been sustainable tourism projects for sites such as Sian Ka’an in Mexico. A global network of marine site managers has been set up and the sustainable management of World Heritage forests, which account for approximately 13 per cent of all protected forests on the planet has also been improved.
Despite the inclusion on the World Heritage List of a growing number of sites from less developed regions of the world and the progress made in strengthening the policies and practices of the Convention, much remains to be done to ensure a full representation on the List of the world’s outstanding natural and cultural diversity.
The most formidable challenge that the Convention will have to face over the coming years are related to global phenomena such as population explosion, diminishing financial resources and climate change. These are responsible for a wide range of environmental and socio-economic pressures that pose a serious threat to World Heritage properties.
Resolving potential tensions between heritage conservation needs and the aspirations of the local communities concerned is another important challenge for the coming decades and could help strengthen the Convention and its success.
This is why the States Parties of the Convention have chosen “World Heritage and Sustainable Development: the Role of Local Communities” as the theme of the anniversary celebration.
Today, as it reaches maturity with so many sites on its List, the ultimate contribution of the World Heritage Convention does not just go to those properties that are listed, but to the long-term protection of our planet and its resources. World Heritage preservation is crucial because the goals and actions of the World Heritage Convention are not only in line with sustainable development, but essential to its achievement.