World Heritage Sites Essay

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An International Movement for the protection of heritage emerged after World War II, following the decision to build the Aswan High Dam in Egypt. The dam would have flooded the valley containing the ancient Abu Simbel temples. To prevent this, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) launched a campaign in 1959 resulting in the successful relocation of the temples. A draft convention on the protection of cultural heritage was subsequently initiated by UNESCO in collaboration with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). In 1965, a conference at the White House in Washington, D.C., for the first time proposed the linking of cultural and natural heritage, calling for a “World Heritage Trust” that would stimulate international cooperation to protect “the world’s superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites for the present and the future of the entire world citizenry.” In 1972, a similar proposal from the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), also known as The World Conservation Union, was presented to the United Nations (UN) Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm.

Also known as the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the World Heritage Convention was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in 1972. It came into force on December 17, 1975, as one of the first international conservation conventions and took effect as the World Heritage List. Countries that accept and adhere to the Convention are called State Parties. In all, 181 countries have ratified the Convention or are at various stages of ratification. The Convention is implemented by the World Heritage Committee, which meets once a year and consists of representatives from 21 of the States Parties elected for terms up to six years. The Committee guides the use of the World Heritage Fund and makes the final decision on the inscription of properties in the list. In 2006, the list had 812 properties of cultural and natural heritage, which the World Heritage Committee considers to be of “outstanding universal value.” These include 628 cultural, 160 natural, and 24 mixed properties in 137 State Parties. Mixed properties have both cultural and natural attributes, e.g., the Laponian Area in Sweden. The Great Wall in China, Angkor in Cambodia, and the Acropolis in Greece are examples of cultural properties.

Proposals for the inclusion of properties in the list can only be submitted by signatories to the Convention. In the nomination process, the first step a country takes is to prepare an inventory of important natural and cultural sites, known as the Tentative List. The State Party then selects sites from the Tentative List, collects exhaustive documentation and maps on the sites and prepares a nomination file. The file is evaluated by two Advisory Bodies mandated by the Convention, i.e., ICOMOS and IUCN, the latter providing evaluations of the nominated natural sites. Following nomination and evaluation, the Committee meets once a year and decides which sites are inscribed. Properties listed are considered to be the “common heritage of mankind” and are thus of universal interest and paramount value, the protection of which is the responsibility of all humanity. The Convention calls for such sites to possess “outstanding universal value.” A site must also fulfill requirements collectively termed the “conditions of integrity” listed in the Committee’s operational guidelines, essentially specifying the long-term conditions a site must meet. To be listed as a natural area, proposed sites must be globally significant and be ecologically viable and protected. Additional criteria that determine a natural site’s importance include: Distinctiveness, integrity, naturalness, dependency, and diversity. In the case of cultural sites, significance is determined according to a different set of criteria.

Unfortunately, in times of conflict or war, or due to lack of proper oversight, the basis of the criteria for a site’s inscription becomes threatened. Such sites may then be inscribed on the World Heritage in Danger List. As of 2006, 34 properties were in danger from among the 812 properties on the List. These 34 properties include 15 protected areas, e.g., Everglades National Park in the United States; Manas Wildlife Sanctuary in India; and four national parks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In 1994, over two decades after the historic adoption of the Convention, it became apparent that the composition of the list was skewed. There were only 90 natural properties and 304 cultural properties. To rectify this imbalance and to overhaul the framework and methods for defining “World Heritage” and implementing the Convention, the Committee launched the Global Strategy for a Balanced, Representative and Credible World Heritage List. Countries were encouraged to become State Parties in order to ensure geographical representation. Emphasis was placed on nominating and inscribing sites showing coexistence of humans with land, among other attributes. The Committee, at its 28th Session in 2004, reviewed IUCN’s assessment that a relatively balanced distribution of regions and wildlife habitats had been achieved. Major gaps remained, however, in the representation of tropical/ temperate grasslands, savannas, lakes, tundra and polar systems, and cold winter deserts.

In 2004, IUCN’s Review of the World Heritage Network (Review) described the natural and mixed World Heritage Sites as “jewels in the crown” of the world’s protected area network. It also laid out the most useful classification and prioritization schemes for revising the Tentative Lists of the State Parties. The schemes are IUCN/Species Survival Commission’s habitat analysis, the Udvardy Biogeographic System, WWF Global 200 Ecoregions, and Conservational International’s Biodiversity Hotspots. In this Review, the Udvardy biome criteria highlighted cold winter deserts, and tundra and polar systems. The WWF Global 220 Ecoregions approach identified terrestrial ecoregions, e.g., Arctic tundra and western Ghats, and marine ecoregions, e.g., the Andaman Islands and Tahiti. The IUCN/SSC analysis identified many potential sites around the world, including several grasslands and savanna sites in Africa; subtropical and tropical montane moist forests in India; montane rain forests in New Caledonia and Polynesia (Oceania/Australasia region); the Central Mexican desert areas; desert and coastal areas of Chile and Peru in South America; and the coastal saline wetlands of Europe.

According to the Review, the continent of Africa had the highest number of natural World Heritage Sites (33), followed by Asia (31) and South America (28); Oceania/Australasia, however, had the highest density of World Heritage Sites, approximately one site per 440,000 square kilometers. Of the 126 natural and mixed World Heritage Sites in 2004, 73 had no resident human population, e.g., Kaziranga and Manas in India. Given the widespread presence and dependence of humans on their immediate environment, however, many World Heritage Sites do not preclude human use and are not strict nature reserves, allowing a range of extractive activities. The 2003 World Parks Congress in Durban clearly recognized the interconnectedness of parks and the people living nearby. Among the largest World Heritage Sites with resident human populations are Lake Baikal (88,000 square kilometers) in the Russian Federation, Manu (15,328 square kilometers) in Peru, and the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks (23,068 square kilometers) in the Provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.


  1. International Union for Conservation of Nature, Benefits Beyond Boundaries (IUCN, Gland Switzerland and Cambridge, UK, 2005);
  2. Chris Magin and Stuart Chape, Review of the World Heritage Net Biogeography, Habitats and Biodiversity (UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre and IUCN, 2004);
  3. Jeffrey Sayer, Natarajan Ishwaran, James Thorsell, and Todd Sigaty, “Tropical Forest Biodiversity and the World Heritage Convention,” Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment (v.29, 2000);
  4. Rahul J. Shrivastava, Natural Resource Use and Park-People Relations at Kaziranga National Park and World Heritage Site, India (Florida International University, 2002);
  5. Jim Thorsell and Todd Sigaty, Human Use of World Heritage Natural Sites: A Global Overview (IUCN: Natural Heritage Program, 1998);
  6. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, “About World Heritage,” (cited April 2006);
  7. Graeme Worboys, Michael Lockwood, and Terry D. Lacy, Protected Area Management: Principles and Practice (Oxford University Press, 2005).

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