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The Taj and Her Ugly Sister Iwami

They are some of the world’s cultural icons and richest ecosystems. The Taj Mahal and Grand Canyon are truly World Heritage sites but the designation is watered down by some very obscure and historically questionable places. Japan’s Iwami Ginzan, a 1500s silver mine now a hole in the ground, shares World Heritage site status with global masterpieces Machu Picchu and the Great Barrier Reef.

Welcome to the complex and controversial world of World Heritage sites.

Established in 1972 at a United Nations convention, today the list of World Heritage sites has ballooned to 936 in 153 countries. The program is under the aegis of Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, (UNESCO) which is holding a series of conferences in 2012 to celebrate World Heritage’s 40th anniversary. The conferences partially seek to find ways to better protect the places that end up on the list. Many of the sites are poorly protected and deteriorating despite UNESCO’s designation which carries Geneva Convention protections and specific management plans for them.

UNESCO has come under increasing pressure and criticism for its World Heritage campaign. Its shortcomings have led to the creation of several non-profit groups that essentially do the same thing—protect globally important sites. Some UNESCO’s critics say a World Heritage site designation has less to do with protection and more to do with commerce. The program is becoming an elaborate marketing tool to attract tourists and make money, they fear.

Since a world heritage designation doesn’t come with any UNESCO funding, it’s up to the nations where sites are located to step up and protect them from tourists, poachers, global warming, logging and mining. There are hundreds of sites that have deteriorated since their World Heritage listing and some suggest UNESCO should do some house cleaning. Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley remains a World Heritage site yet a spate of ugly construction and choking air pollution augur for its delisting. Tibet’s Potala Palace in Lhasa is a shadow of its former self since China’s takeover of Tibet and it too should be considered for delisting. Despite wear and tear on many on the list, UNESCO has only dropped one site, the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman in 2007. Oil exploration shrunk the reserve’s land by 90 percent as the Oryx population dwindled from 450 to less than 65.

UNESCO lists 35 sites currently on its World Heritage in danger list yet only has a budget of $4 million to help these sites. Of the sites in danger, 16 are in Africa including five in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Virunga National Park has been on the list since 1994 and is the home of the silver back gorilla. Florida’s Everglades National Park is the lone U.S. site on the endangered list.

Success Stories

Despite UNESCO’s World Heritage problems, there have been success stories.

Perhaps its greatest triumph came in the medieval city of Dubrovnik. After Serb bombs pummeled its historic buildings in 1991 the city was listed in danger and UNESCO galvanized the international community to come to the city’s restoration. By coordinating technical advice and fundraising efforts, UNESCO was able to help the Croatian Government restore the facades of the Franciscan and Dominican cloisters, repaired roofs and rebuilt palaces. In December 1998, the city had risen from the ashes and was removed from the danger list.

Another big win came in Egypt where the Mubarak government was planning to put a new highway on the doorstep of the Giza Pyramids. By pressuring the government, UNESCO was able to get the highway diverted away from the site. In Mexico, the government was planning to green light the expansion of a salt factory inside Laguna San Ignacio in El Vizcaino Bay, the last pristine reproduction lagoon for the Pacific grey whale. The Mexican Government refused permission for the salt works expansion in March 2000 after UNESCO and several NGOs lobbied against the project.

Nepal’s Royal Chitwan National Park provides refuge for 400 greater one-horned rhinoceros but in the early 1990s, a river diversion project was proposed. The Asian Development Bank and the Government of Nepal were asked to reconsider the plan and the project was abandoned.

In 1987 plans were underway to build an aluminum plant near Greece’s Delphi archaeology site. The Greek Government was persuaded to find another location for the plant and Delphi took its rightful place on the World Heritage List. Other major UNESCO conservation efforts have come in Venice, Angkor, Cambodia, Mount Kenya National Park, Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Indonesia’s Borobudur temple, with varying degrees of lasting success.

Too Many Sites, Too Little Money

While UNESCO has built a resume to justify its World Heritage program’s survival over the next 40 years, its shortcoming need shoring up. Critics say the program has gotten too big, too bureaucratic, and too political in a time of diminished resources. There just isn’t enough money and manpower to insure that each site’s management plans are being maintained.

“At its worst, its most vocal critics say, World Heritage is a lame duck in a straitjacket, incapable of protecting the world’s truly endangered places,” writes Simon Usborne in London’s The Independent newspaper in 2009. Usborne slams World Heritage programs for not aggressively enforcing management plans and quotes conservationists who have visited some remote sites as not having the basics such as park maps available.

Jeff Morgan, the director of the Global Heritage Fund has been a UNESCO detractor. His own non-profit established in 2002 has spent $25 million on its 18 sites and raised another $20 million from co-funders to reinvest in these sites which are mostly in developing countries. Morgan credits UNESCO for doing a good job managing the list, but that’s as far he will go. “I’ll give them a B for monitoring, but a D for enforcement because they have no teeth. Finally, they preserve, which you can’t even score them for because they have no money. The bottom line is that you need a strong network of conservation groups, led by UNESCO, to provide a safety net for the most endangered sites in the countries with the least resources,” Morgan told The Independent.

We have our own bone to pick with UNESCO. The World Heritage list is heavily Eurocentric and follows a money trail. Italy has the most countries on the list with 44, the United States has 21. North America and Europe have a combined 516 while Africa has just 82 and Latin America 97, despite both continents’ bountiful cultural and natural richness Spain has 41 cultural UNESCO designations, Peru—with 4,000 years of history and hundreds of important cultural sites—has only nine. Guatemala, the birthplace of Maya civilization, has three.

The richest countries have the most clout at UNESCO and the only way a site can be evaluated is when a country applies for the designation. Countries with the most clout wield influence and elevate their own designations. Businessmen often influence politicians to intercede in their behalf to get a site designated so they can profit from tourism. Politics and lobbying have placed sites on the list that many can only ask, “what were they thinking?” What is the Rietveld Schroder House built in 1925 in the Netherlands doing on a list that includes Stonehenge, Notre Dame and the Tower of London?

A Mongol Tale

Tusker has embraced the newest World Heritage site, the stone carvings, mounds and petroglyhphs in the Mongolian Altai. Tusker founder Eddie Frank has made frequent trips to the region and Tusker is the first company offering an in depth workshop exploring the sites’ cultural and environmental significance. He will lead the trip starting July 20 that will include lectures by Esther Jacobson-Tepfer and a photo workshop by her husband Gary Tepfer. It was Jacobson-Tepfer who did much of the archaeological work on the sites and then campaigned vigorously with Mongolian officials to get the areas recognized by UNESCO. It took nearly a decade for the area to become inscribed by UNESCO. The award came last June.

Bureaucratic inertia may have delayed the process. The Mongolian Altai is populated by ethnic Kazakhs who are not fully integrated into Mongol society and officials in Ulan Bator may have been less interested in the region than other parts of the nation.

“Our nomination of the three sites did not get much attention by the Mongolian authorities for several years, mainly because they were concerned with the nomination of the Orkhon Valley. Once the Mongolians asked me to work with them and taking it through to the final decision was relatively short, perhaps only two years,” Jacobson-Tepfer recalled. She worked on the UNESCO designation project because she hopes it will spur lasting protection.

Jacobson fears UNESCO’s lack of funding could hurt the sites she discovered as well as hundreds of others. “UNESCO offers no protection to such sites; it is all up to Mongolia. Unless the world economic situation improves, I would worry about all World Heritage sites, in all parts of the world” she concluded.