Apr 8, 2016 by

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

A view from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park in Ariz. The Grand Canyon National Park suffers from unsustainable water use, according to a new UNESCO report, and is one of many sites worldwide facing threats from human activity.

Nearly half of all the natural World Heritage sites, including the Grand Canyon and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the United States, are threatened by harmful industrial activity, according to a new World Wildlife Fund survey.

World Heritage sites are symbols of conservation and culture that have been nominated by their countries for demonstrating outstanding universal value. Areas are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List for their unique natural values, such as the scale of natural habitats, health of ecological processes, viability of populations of rare species, and exceptional natural beauty. Natural sites include iconic landscapes such as the Galapagos Islands, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Grand Canyon, while so-called mixed sites may include archaeological areas like Macchu Picchu or Pueblo ruins in New Mexico.

But despite their value, many sites are suffering from oil, gas and mineral extraction, as well as illegal logging and construction of large-scale roads and dams, according to the report published Wednesday.

Out of the 229 natural and mixed World Heritage sites, 114 have oil, gas, mining or fishing permits within their boundaries, or are otherwise considered under “high threat” or “very high threat” of development. Sub-Saharan African sites are suffering the most, according to the report. Of the 42 sites the region holds, 30 are threatened. One example of damage there is the Banc d’Arguin National Park in impoverished Mauritania, an area now suffering from foreign commercial overfishing that’s depleted marine stocks, affecting bird species and the locals’ livelihoods.

“This is staggering. We’re trying to raise a flag here,” Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International, told Reuters. “We’re not opposing development, we’re opposing badly planned development.”

Developed and developing countries are failing their World Heritage sites, according to the report. In Spain, the Andalusian government is supporting the reopening of a mine near Doñana National Park that in 1998 caused one of Spain’s worst environmental disasters when a waste reservoir burst and released toxic sludge and acidic water into the Guadiamar River, the main water source for Doñana. And in the United States, four national parks, including the Grand Canyon and the Everglades, are threatened by infrastructure development, like roads, dams or unsustainable water use. Hawaii’s Papahanaumokuakea National Monument, a marine area of near-pristine reefs and a critical habitat for 14 million seabirds, suffers from damaging international shipping activities.

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Aside from their environmental value, natural World Heritage sites provide social and economic benefits. Two-thirds of natural sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List are crucial water sources, and about half help prevent natural disasters such as floods or landslides, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Over 90 percent of listed natural sites provide income through tourism and recreation. But benefits decrease when the landscape is altered or resources are over-exploited.

Noting that more than 11 million people depend on World Heritage sites for water, food, and medicine, the report urged governments to hold industries “to the highest standards of corporate accountability and stewardship,” and create clear buffer zones around the sites. It also called on industries and financiers to make public commitments to refrain from encroaching on World Heritage sites, and adhere to sustainable practices. These types of commitments do exist. In 2003, members of the International Council on Mining and Metals, an organization of more than 50 mining companies and associations, promised not to explore or mine in World Heritage sites. Most industries, however, abstain from these commitments, according to the report.

“Natural World Heritage sites have a crucial role in supporting human well-being and as beacons of sustainable development,” said Tim Badman, director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Heritage Program, in a statement. “By highlighting human dependency on these exceptional places, WWF’s report reinforces the need to boost our efforts to conserve them.”

Indeed, reports can pressure governments into action. Late last month, after UNESCO issued a report saying the entire Tasmanian Wilderness should remain protected from development, the Australian government said they would no longer pursue logging in this massive World Heritage site known as one of the last expanses of temperate rainforest in the world. Australia had for two years campaigned for logging, and even asked UNESCO to revoke its World Heritage Status for part of the wilderness — something that had never been done by a developed country before.

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