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World Heritage sites at risk

Sites of ‘outstanding universal value’ threatened by industrial activity
Belize Barrier Reef

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

Around the world these sites provide vital services to people and the environment, yet they’re at risk from activities including oil and gas exploration, mining and illegal logging.

Global failures

The report shows how natural World Heritage sites contribute to economic and social development through the protection of the environment – and also details global failures to protect these areas of outstanding universal value.

According to the study, 114 natural and mixed World Heritage sites out of 229 either have oil, gas or mining concessions overlapping them or are under threat from at least one other harmful industrial activity. At least 12 of them are in the European Union and are also protected by the EU Nature Directives.

‘World Heritage sites should receive the highest levels of protection, yet we are often unable to safeguard even this important fraction of the Earth’s surface.

‘We all agree that these are some of the most valuable and unique places on the planet, now we need to work together to let these sites provide for the well-being of people and Nature.’

Director General of WWF International

Threats to European sites

More than eleven 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 on a large scale.

‘Europe is home to natural areas of outstanding value to the whole humanity. They are protected by European laws like the EU Birds and Habitats Directives that need to be fully respected and implemented to stop damaging industrial activities, like oil and gas drilling, deforestation or unsustainable agriculture.

‘These unique natural sites and the rest of Europe’s protected nature belong to all of us and if sustainably and properly managed can deliver enormous benefits to local communities and businesses.’

Director at WWF European Policy Office

The report shows that within the EU at least 12 sites are currently highly threatened by oil and gas concessions, mines, unsustainable water use and transport infrastructures or deforestation.

Among the sites are the largest surviving area of laurel forest of Laurisilva of Madeira (Portugal); the Danube Delta; the world-famous Plitvice Lakes (Croatia); the rich biodiversity of the Wadden Sea; the Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians; the unique wetland of Doñana in Spain; Sweden’s Laponian area; Bulgaria’s Pirin National Park and some of Italy’s most beautiful sites, such as the Venice Lagoon.

Respecting World Heritage status

World Heritage sites cover approximately 0.5% of the Earth’s surface. These sites support some of the planet’s most valuable ecosystems and contribute to economies through tourism, recreation and the export of resources – while also providing homes to threatened species and helping counter global climate change.

World Heritage sites could play a key role for people and communities worldwide 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.

‘We need to wake up to the fact that people don’t just protect these sites, these sites protect people. Governments and businesses need to prioritise long-term value over short-term revenue and respect the status of these incredible places.

‘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.’

Director General of WWF International

Harmful activities

The study, Protecting People through Nature: Natural World Heritage Sites as Drivers of Sustainable Development, shows that over 20% of natural World Heritage sites face threats from multiple harmful industrial activities.

In one example cited in the report, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System (main image) 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 wellbeing of 190,000 people – half of Belize’s population – at risk.

Click here to read the full report, Protecting People through Nature: Natural World Heritage Sites as Drivers of Sustainable Development.

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