Explainer: what is the List of World Heritage in Danger?

When World Heritage sites are under threat, like Florida’s Everglades National Park, they are added to the List of World Heritage in Danger. Flickr/slack12

The List of World Heritage in Danger has recently come to the attention of Australians, as the World Heritage Committee considers whether the Great Barrier Reef belongs there. What is the list, and what does getting onto it mean?

The World Heritage Convention and the ‘in danger’ list

The World Heritage Convention is an international convention adopted by UNESCO aimed at conserving the world’s most outstanding heritage sites. The convention covers 190 countries that voluntarily participate in it. Identifying potential world heritage places is the responsibility of each participating country.

The World Heritage Committee – a 21-member body established by the convention but with membership elected by the member states – decides which sites make the list (there are currently 1,007). Countries have to protect, conserve, communicate the value of, rehabilitate and transmit the sites to future generations.

The government of Honduras requested the World Heritage Committee place its Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve on the List in Danger because of its reduced capacity to manage the site. Lawlessness in the area led to illegal logging, fishing and land occupation, poaching and the presence of drug traffickers. Hjvannes/Wikimedia Commons

The World Heritage Committee also publishes a second list: the “List of World Heritage in Danger”.

Normally, for a site to enter this list, its country asks for help to address serious threats. But in cases of urgent need, the committee can inscribe a site immediately and without the agreement of its country. Currently, 46 World Heritage Sites, 20 of which are natural, are on the List in Danger.

The 46 sites currently on the List of World Heritage in Danger. UNESCO/Google Maps

How are sites added to the list?

The World Heritage Committee gets information about the state of conservation of sites from countries and from advisory bodies such as the IUCN (natural heritage) and ICOMOS (cultural heritage). Where threats have been identified or changes proposed that may adversely effect a World Heritage property, the committee may seek a detailed site examination. This happened on the Great Barrier Reef in 2012.

The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, the largest barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere, was put on the World Heritage in Danger List for excessive development. The Great Barrier Reef is under scrutiny for similar concerns. Asteiner/Wikimedia Commons

Two of the criteria used for placing a property on the list are ascertained and potential danger. Ascertained danger measures imminent threats, such as industrial development, to the site. Potential danger applies to development proposals that could undermine the essential character of the site.

Why list a site as ‘in danger’?

There are some advantages to a country of having a site listed as “in danger”. The World Heritage Committee can allocate funds to respond to the threats, typically under a plan drawn up with the country concerned. And it highlights to the world the threats that exist and encourages donor agencies to help.

For example, all five World Heritage Sites in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been on the endangered list since 1994, which has generated a large amount of international aid to support their rehabilitation. More than US$50 million has flowed not just from UNESCO but also from non-government organisations and from Belgium and Japan. This is an excellent example of the convention at work.

Countries may seek to avoid listing (and any perceived shame attached to this) and address the concerns internally. This occurred when Ecuador’s Galapagos World Heritage Area was inscribed.

Ecuador initially opposed the listing and asked for time to resolve the concerns internally. This required a constitutional change to empower the federal government to take appropriate action. Much to Ecuador’s credit, this was accomplished.

Few other countries have taken such dramatic action to protect World Heritage. On two occasions when countries have failed to respond appropriately, the committee has taken the radical step to remove sites from both Heritage lists altogether. The first to be removed was Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary - a victim of the nation’s lust for oil.

Every such removal would be seen as a failure of the convention. The presumption is that a site is rehabilitated and then upgraded to its original standing on the World Heritage list.

While there has been some debate about its efficacy and there are different interpretations about the significance and meaning of listing a site as “in danger”, the process is a very clear first step in the potential removal of a site from the World Heritage List.