The United Nations World Heritage Committee has opened its 30th session in Vilnius, Lithuania, to pick new candidates to join a list that already includes sites as unique and diverse as the wilds of East Africa’s Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the baroque cathedrals of Latin America.
“Cultural diversity is the ultimate purpose of our presence here,” UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura told yesterday’s opening session. “Indeed, you are gathered here to ensure that one of the most tangible aspects of the world’s cultural diversity, tangible heritage, be preserved and looked after, to be bequeathed as undamaged as possible to future generations.”
UNESCO’s World Heritage mission is to encourage countries to protect their natural and cultural heritage with management plans, technical assistance and professional training, and to provide emergency assistance for sites in immediate danger.
Twenty-one representatives of States Parties to UNESCO’s 1972 World Heritage Convention make up the World Heritage Committee which will decided what sites this year will join the 812 already on the agency’s World Heritage List.
Africa is severely under-represented on the List. Despite the continent’s great cultural and natural diversity, only eight percent of the sites are to be found in Africa. They constitute 43 per cent of sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
This year, the Committee will review 27 cultural sites, eight natural sites, two mixed sites and three trans-boundary sites presented by 30 countries.
It will also examine the 34 sites currently on the List of World Heritage in Danger. These face serious threat from a variety of causes such as pollution, pillaging, war, poorly managed tourism and poaching etc. The List includes the Minaret and Archaeological Vestiges of Jam in Afghanistan, Cologne Cathedral in Germany and Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The 1972 Convention encourages international cooperation in order to safeguard this common heritage. With 182 States Parties, it is one of the most widely ratified international legal instruments.
Today the Committee adopted recommendations on ways to respond to the threat of climate change to many World Heritage sites such as Mount Everest, the Great Barrier Reef and Venice, Italy. Most natural ecosystems and heritage sites, both on land and in the sea, are endangered by climate change. They include glaciers, coral reefs, mangroves, boreal and tropical forests, polar and alpine ecosystems, wetlands and grasslands.
The Committee requested the World Heritage Centre to prepare a policy document on the impact of climate change on World Heritage properties in consultation with experts, conservation practitioners, international organizations and civil society to be presented to the World Heritage Committee in 2008.