Conserving and protecting cultural heritage sites is an international concern, so UNESCO created its World Heritage program to catalog sites of special cultural or natural significance around the globe.
As soon as the Aswan High Dam was constructed in Egypt and Sudan in 1954, local governments turned to UNESCO for help in protecting monuments and cultural sites that might otherwise have been submerged by its reservoir.
UNESCO strives to facilitate the identification, protection and preservation of sites considered of exceptional cultural and natural value to humanity worldwide. Their efforts are enshrined in the 1972 Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage.
After the success of its Nubian Campaign, UNESCO became a pioneering force in high-profile international salvage missions to preserve ancient wonders like Athenian Acropolis, Venice, Moenjodaro and Borobudur. These missions gave substance to its midcentury commitment to global conservation based on international goodwill and civility among states.
But such projects also opened the door for the establishment of nationstate power at UNESCO, now comprising 58 member states who vote on its budget and programs. Academics, activists and Indigenous communities often express discontent with its philosophies, procedures, regulations and impacts; yet UNESCO strives to change this by promoting global literacy and learning, helping bridge digital divides, supporting sustainable development initiatives and creating inclusive knowledge societies.
World Heritage Sites
UNESCO’s World Heritage program catalogues sites of such international cultural and natural significance that their preservation should be seen as part of humanity’s shared heritage. World Heritage sites may include historic buildings or town centers, archeological sites, works of monumental sculpture or painting and natural areas like Galapagos Islands or Pantanal in Brazil.
Cultural sites must bear unique or exceptional testimony of a particular culture or civilization in order to be designated. Examples include Malta’s Megalithic Temples and Lithuania’s Curonian Spit, both designated cultural sites. Each nomination is evaluated independently by an expert panel from either International Council on Monuments and Sites or International Union for Conservation of Nature, respectively.
After being assessed by the panel, its recommendation is then forwarded to the World Heritage Committee for consideration for inscription into its list of World Heritage properties and additional protection under the Convention. Once an inscription occurs, this property becomes part of this legacy for future generations to enjoy.
World Heritage in Danger
The World Heritage Committee, along with States Parties to the Convention and non-governmental organizations, can inform the world of existing threats by adding sites to the List of World Heritage in Danger. Once on this list, sites become the focus of focused preservation efforts.
Armed conflict and war, earthquakes and other natural disasters, pollution, poaching, unchecked tourist development and climate change all present major threats to cultural and natural World Heritage sites. A combination of ocean acidification, warming air temperatures and melting permafrost could significantly damage archaeological sites like Chan Chan in Peru.
However, many natural and cultural World Heritage sites have shown the efficacy of concerted preservation efforts. Comoe National Park in Cote d’Ivoire recently emerged from World Heritage in Danger thanks to international support and joint action that resulted in increasing species populations – thus serving as an exemplar for future sites and providing evidence that their status can change back without losing access to this list.
Global Heritage Issues
Cultural Preservation Is an International Initiative
Heritage preservation can often be thought of in terms of national efforts; however, some of the world’s most iconic heritage sites extend well beyond any single nation’s boundaries and face global threats such as climate change, overtourism, unsustainable development or lack of government support.
Some natural World Heritage sites are already showing that conservation works, like Comoe National Park in Cote d’Ivoire which recently came off of the “World Heritage in Danger” list due to international support and on-the-ground efforts that saw species populations increasing as a result of international support and efforts by volunteers and on-site staff alike. Yet many sites continue to face threats such as climate change, habitat loss and inadequate resources that threaten their preservation.
Preservation professionals face the difficulty of encouraging tourism patterns that are sustainable for heritage sites without negatively affecting them. Large crowds, for instance, can damage monuments and diminish visitor experiences; alternatively, World Monuments Fund works with communities to restore traditional techniques which allow villagers to build without depleting natural resources; one project undertaken with this aim by 2020 Watch in Kilwa Tanzania has included this approach as part of its implementation plans.