Recognized for their “exceptional natural beauty” and “aesthetic importance,” many natural World Heritage Sites are nonetheless under increasing threat. A new report has detailed how around one-third of all natural sites have some sort of extractive activity – be it for oil, gas or minerals – within their boundaries, putting these places that have been designated as some of the most important environments in the world in peril.
Alongside their obvious splendor, the sites are chosen for their global biological and ecological significance, and importance as conservation areas, amongst other criteria. They include places such as the Great Barrier Reef, Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As well as their intrinsic beauty, many of the sites also include vital, and sometimes the only, populations of critically endangered species such as mountain gorillas and snow leopards.
Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, one of the largest reserves in the world, is threatened by 57 mining concessions. Rob/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0
“We are going to the ends of the Earth in pursuit of more resources – resources, including minerals, oil and gas, that are becoming more difficult and more expensive to extract,” explains the Chief Executive of WWF–UK David Nussbaum. “Some of the world’s most treasured places are threatened by destructive industrial activities that imperil the very values for which they have been granted the highest level of international recognition: outstanding natural value.”
The report, called Safeguarding Outstanding Natural Value, has looked at the 229 natural World Heritage Sites – found on every continent except Antarctica – and concluded that 70 of them are at risk. Not all are threatened directly by extraction industries such as mines, but many will feel the stress as transport and infrastructure needed for these developments can cut through the sites.
They also found that the sites at risk are far from spread evenly across the globe. Some areas, such as Africa, came out of this report terribly. They found a shocking six out of 10 natural World Heritage Sites on the continent are in danger of being damaged by development, compared to one out of 10 in Europe and North America. But the reasons behind this discrepancy are currently unclear.
The Danube River Delta is the second largest, and best protected in Europe, and yet it overlaps with oil and gas concessions. Porojnicu Stelian/Shutterstock
The WWF is calling on investors to not invest in and to pull out of extraction companies that are planning developments that could harm these sites. They want to warn the investment companies about the potential risks they are running not just financially, but also to their reputation. You just have to look at the events of the past week, with Shell pulling out of Arctic drilling despite having spent billions of dollars on the venture. Alongside poor test drilling results, it’s also suspected that the mass of negative publicity and feedback around the operation also played a part.
“Protecting these iconic places is not only important in terms of their environmental worth; it is crucial for the livelihoods and future of the people who depend on them,” says Nussbaum. “Investors have a unique opportunity, and indeed responsibility, to be stewards of capital and shape our future.”