World Heritage status not sparing iconic natural sites from mining and dams

Paris, 26 October 2016 – Extractives and large dams are among the biggest threats to natural World Heritage sites, including iconic places such as Virunga National Park, Iguaçu and the Sundarbans. This is a conclusion of the World Heritage Committee meeting, following recommendations by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The meeting closed today in UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris.

Iguaçu National Park, Brazil

The World Heritage Committee urged governments and the private sector to respect World Heritage sites as ‘no-go’ areas for the extractive industry, taking note of the findings of IUCN’s World Heritage Outlook, which confirm extractives as a growing threat to natural World Heritage. The no-go principle acknowledges that extractives are incompatible with World Heritage status.

The Committee’s call echoes the concerns expressed by IUCN Members over the rapid growth of environmentally damaging industrial activities – such as mining, oil and gas – and infrastructure developments – such as dams and roads – affecting not only World Heritage sites, but all protected areas worldwide.

“Governments and civil society at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in September called for all protected areas to be considered as no-go areas for large-scale industrial activities and infrastructure developments,” says Tim Badman, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme. “To remain credible, the World Heritage Convention must demonstrate its leadership in securing the protection of Earth’s most significant natural places against those major threats.”

Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has long been exposed to extractive threats. In recent years, oil and gas companies Total and Soco committed to the no-go principle. But this year, IUCN and UNESCO’s joint recommendation to the Committee highlighted a new oil threat to Virunga from a concession granted in Uganda bordering the site. Virunga is Africa’s oldest park and one of the most biodiversity-rich areas on the planet.

Large dam projects have also been acknowledged as a major threat to World Heritage sites, often exacerbated by a lack of environmental impact assessments on the exceptional values of these areas. Under the advice of IUCN, the Committee urged governments to consider such developments as incompatible with World Heritage status.

Dams can affect aesthetic values, such as with the iconic Iguazu waterfalls located within two World Heritage-listed parks in Brazil and Argentina. Species’ habitats can also be damaged. New and existing dam projects are interfering with a migratory corridor for fish species in Talamanca Range-La Amistad Reserves/La Amistad National Park along the border of Panama and Costa Rica. As recommended by IUCN, the Committee expressed deep regret over Panama’s approval of the Changuinola II dam construction, despite the lack of a complete impact assessment process.

The Committee followed IUCN’s advice to reiterate the need for environmental impact assessments to specifically address how World Heritage values are affected by proposed infrastructure projects. Such assessments should apply to all projects likely to have an impact on a site, even if they are located outside its boundaries.

The Sundarbans in Bangladesh is exposed to a number of threats including the Rampal coal-fired power plant project planned close to the site. A recent UNESCO-IUCN mission to the site, whose conclusions will be presented to the World Heritage Committee in 2017, noted the environmental impact assessment prepared by Bangladesh did not fully consider how the plant would impact World Heritage values. The site is part of the world’s largest mangrove forest, home to the royal Bengal tiger.

The World Heritage Committee meeting convenes each year to take decisions on the action needed to protect World Heritage sites and to inscribe new sites on the World Heritage List. IUCN is the advisory body on natural World Heritage, providing independent technical advice to the Committee.

The World Heritage Committee met for a continued session this week, after being unable to complete all decisions in Istanbul in July.

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