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A chilling report recently released by WWF (formerly World Wildlife Fund) has found that nearly half of the world’s UNESCO-designated natural World Heritage Sites are threatened by industrial activities including oil, gas, and mineral extraction, overfishing, and illegal logging.

Sadly, some of the world’s most iconic natural sites have made it onto the WWF’s list, including:

  • the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, which is under stress due to extensive coral bleaching and is under further threat from the proposed Carmichael coal mine;
  • the Everglades National Park in the US, which has been so degraded by encroaching industrial and agricultural development, among other threats, that it has been inscribed by UNESCO onto its List of World Heritage in Danger;
  • Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, which has been investigated by UNESCO for threats from ongoing development in the oil sands (incidentally, it is Canada’s largest national park); and
  • Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks in Alberta and British Columbia, which is a system of 7 parks under stress from expanding resource development activities.

There are currently 229 sites designated natural and mixed natural/cultural world heritage sites. Under the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, World Heritage sites are designated by UNESCO in recognition of their “outstanding universal value” (article 11). They must meet at least one of a list of selection criteria.

For “natural” heritage sites, that means they must:

  • contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance (criterion vii);
  • be an outstanding example representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features (criterion viii);
  • be an outstanding example representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals (criterion ix); or
  • contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation (criterion x).

Not only are do Natural World Heritage Sites provide crucial support for a multitude of complex ecosystems, many are also sources of food, freshwater, and employment for millions of people, among other benefits. Many also act as carbon sinks and provide protection from the impacts of climate change. They are also important tourist draws, generating billions of dollars of revenue every year.

Once designated, the states in which they are located are expected to undertake measures to ensure the protection, conservation, and protection of the designated site (Article 5).

The WWF report makes a number of suggestions to minimize these threats, including the establishment of clear buffer zones to provide additional protection to sites.

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