Half of World Heritage sites are at risk from industry

World Heritage sites such as the Grand Canyon NP are at risk from heavy industry. Photo by Tobi 87 (commons.wikimedia.org).
World Heritage sites such as the Grand Canyon NP are at risk from heavy industry. Photo by Tobi 87 (commons.wikimedia.org).
World Heritage (WH) sites such as the Great Barrier Reef, Grand Canyon NP, the Belize Barrier Reef and Lake Malawi NP are under threat from heavy industry, a new report has revealed.

Nearly half of all natural and mixed WH sites are threatened by harmful industrial activities, according to a new Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) report. These hugely valuable sites which protect fragile environments and provide vital resources to millions of people are at risk worldwide from threats ranging from oil and gas exploration to mining and illegal logging.

The report, produced for WWF by Dalberg Global Development Advisors, shows how natural WH sites contribute to economic and social development, but also details global failures to ensure their protection. According to the study, 114 of the 229 natural and mixed WH sites have oil, gas or mining concessions overlapping with them or are under threat from other harmful industrial activities. The report also shows that over 20 per cent of natural WH sites face threats from multiple harmful industrial activities.

“WH sites cover approximately 0.5 per cent of the Earth’s surface and include some of the most valuable and unique places on the planet. Yet even this small fraction of our planet isn’t receiving the protection it deserves,” said David Nussbaum, CEO of WWF-UK. “These areas contribute to our economies through tourism and natural resources, providing livelihoods for millions of people while also supporting some of the planet’s most valuable ecosystems, so we need to work together now to ensure they are properly protected.”

WH sites could help to play a key role in achieving the global sustainable development goals agreed last year by UN member states. According to the report, 90 per cent of natural WH sites provide jobs and benefits that extend far beyond their boundaries. More than 11 million people depend on the sites for food, water, shelter and medicine and could be negatively affected by the impacts of large-scale harmful industrial activities conducted.

In one example cited in the report, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System is shown to be at risk from unsustainable coastal construction, large-scale mangrove clearance, harmful agricultural run-off and the potential of dangerous oil exploration. These threats put the well-being of 190,000 people – half of Belize's population – at risk.

WWF is calling on national governments to ensure that no harmful industrial activities are permitted in WH sites or in adjacent areas that could negatively affect them, and to hold multinational enterprises operating in their territories to the highest standards of corporate accountability and stewardship.

“Governments and businesses need to prioritise long-term value over short-term revenue and respect the status of these incredible places,” said Nussbaum. “We need to turn away from harmful industrial activities and focus on sustainable alternatives that enhance WH sites, their values and the benefits they provide, especially to local communities.”

Among other measures listed in the report, WWF is asking the private sector to make commitments to refrain from activities that threaten to degrade WH sites. Financing should also be withheld from projects involving harmful industrial activities in such sites or the companies conducting them.