Anjana Khatwa explores the implications of acquiring World Heritage Site status

One cannot fail to be inspired by the human effort it took to build the Great Wall of China; or to be awed by the sheer power of Victoria Falls in Zambia; or to witness the result of the most destructive force ever created by humankind at Hiroshima in Japan. The care and protection of these World Heritage Sites falls to individual nations that have ratified the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention. Nations have committed to protect, conserve and manage the sites for future generations. But despite all this, damage can and does happen. From the unavoidable to the unthinkable, our irreplaceable heritage is being damaged, lost or destroyed in earthquakes, tsunamis and war zones. It is also under pressure from the millions of tourists who visit these sites every year.

Fair representation?

So, why should vandalism to an obscure monument half way across the world matter to you or me? These questions are challenging and have posed great issues for the World Heritage Committee, which is the body responsible for awarding World Heritage Site status. Although the World Heritage process recognises the value of diversity in global cultures, the system has suffered from bias. According to ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, it is generally recognised that the cultural properties inscribed on the World Heritage list do not truly reflect the cultural and geographical diversity of our global cultural heritage.

Visit the World Heritage Centre website ( and have a look at the World Heritage list. You will find that there is a bias towards certain regions, notably Europe, Latin America and certain Asian cultures, in particular China and India. The cultural heritages of vast regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, central Asia, the Caribbean and Oceania scarcely appear on the list. But is this a reflection of discriminatory attitudes or is it a function of the application process for World Heritage (which can take up to eight years and can be expensive)?

Certainly in the early years of the World Heritage Convention, there was a strong bias towards Western culture and Christianity. Evidence suggests that a large proportion of cultural sites are biased towards Christian monuments, the majority of which are in Europe. This contrasts with the handful of monuments of other great world religions such as Buddhism, Islam or Hinduism. The geographical bias of World Heritage Sites shows: 50% of which occur in Europe and North America. It is clear to see that the least number of World Heritage Sites occur in Africa and the Arab states. This skewed bias is currently being addressed through UNESCO programmes and initiatives that help nations in these regions to prepare World Heritage Site nomination documents.

The significance of this bias is profound, particularly when you consider how many of the sites listed on the World Heritage in Danger list fall into these regions and are located in nations that have developing economies. But why would a nation, particularly a developing one, wish to spend money and time on a World Heritage Site application? Is protecting the heritage of a nation as important as supporting adult literacy programmes or fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS?

Dreams come true?

Tourism is big business, and becoming a World Heritage Site effectively catapults a country into an elite group of destinations overnight. For example, the Welsh mining village of Blaenavon which became a World Heritage Site in 2000 now shares this accolade with the Taj Mahal and the Acropolis. In China, the ancient walled city of Pingyao in northern Shanxi province saw tourism revenue rise from 180,000 yuan ($21,690) to 5m yuan a year after it became a World Heritage Site in 1997. In addition to increased public awareness about the site, a country can also look towards UNESCO for technical support and advice on how their site should be managed and conserved. This is crucial, particularly if the country wishes to increase exposure of the site to tourists as pressure from tourism could easily degrade the very quality for which that place became a World Heritage Site.

Having acquired the sought-after World Heritage listing, some governments in developing countries lack the legislation, knowledge, funding and sometimes even the will to conserve and protect sites. Key government services such as health, education and infrastructure development are often desperately underfunded and the prospect of ‘cashing in’ on vast numbers of tourists visiting a world famous attraction could be very lucrative. UNESCO has had to intervene numerous times to prevent inappropriate developments designed to increase facilities for tourism, such as a proposed amusement park near the Taj Mahal and a cable car to the Inca city of Machu Picchu. The pressure from tourism is just one of the factors that can push the integrity of a World Heritage Site into question. For some sites, however, damage and irretrievable loss of heritage are difficult to avoid or prevent. 

The danger list

Countries are responsible for maintaining the quality of World Heritage Sites through management and preservation efforts that incorporate local communities and national authorities. When a site is threatened or damaged by natural or human causes (such as the tsunami in southeast Asia or civil war), the characteristics responsible for its inscription on to the World Heritage list could be under threat. In these circumstances, the country and/or UNESCO agree to transfer the site on to the World Heritage in Danger list in order to attract the necessary expertise and funding to remediate the damage. Threats to World Heritage Sites come in many forms: armed conflict and war, wanton destruction, natural disasters, pollution, poaching, unplanned construction and uncontrolled tourism. 

Poaching and war

One of the saddest examples of the effects of conflict can be seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The country has five natural World Heritage Sites within its borders and is renowned for its amazing diversity of habitats which supports an incredible wealth of wildlife. The DRC ratified the World Heritage Convention in 1974 as a measure of its commitment to protect these outstanding areas. However, since the mid-1990s, internal conflict, successive civil wars and a massive influx of refugees, particularly from Rwanda, have devastated its natural resources to the point that all five sites are now on the World Heritage in Danger list.  
These five sites, which encompass over 8% of the country’s surface area, are the only viable sanctuaries capable of ensuring the preservation of a sequence of natural landscapes and the survival of many endemic and threatened species of animals. By far the biggest problems relate to civil unrest which has spurred rival groups of militia to overpower national park rangers and take over swathes of land within the World Heritage Site areas. As a result of this, many rangers are killed on duty while protecting the site. This reality combined with poor or unpaid wages for park staff means that the wildlife and habitats have little or no protection from opportunists. Poaching is rife and has decimated populations of white rhino, elephants, gorillas and endemic species such as the okapi. Illegal habitation within the park boundaries by warring factions and refugees has led to exploitation of the natural resources including mass deforestation and illegal open-cast mining. The loss of such rich and diverse natural habitats should be of concern not only to native Congolese, but to all humanity.

Wanton destruction

Another case of unwarranted destruction of heritage concerns the Buddhas of Bamiyan. These were two monumental statues of standing Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley of central Afghanistan, 143 miles northwest of Kabul. The statues stand at 55 and 37 metres high and are the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world. The great stone Buddhas were tangible symbols of Afghanistan’s extraordinary cultural diversity. There have been efforts by various invading factions in history to try and destroy them but these have largely failed.

However, due to over 25 years of war and the rise of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the integrity of native cultural landscapes has suffered greatly.  Although no Buddhists have lived in the Bamiyan Valley since the 10th century, the Taliban mullahs considered the statues to be ‘idolatrous’ and ‘un-Islamic’. Their claim was that the 1,500-year-old Buddhas were ‘offensive to Islam’. In March 2001, despite efforts of museums and governments from around the world, the Taliban authorised the wilful destruction of the giant buddhas using rocket launchers, grenades and dynamite. Today the alcoves where the Buddhas once stood are fenced off, as are hundreds of tons of fragments. Belatedly, UNESCO declared the Bamiyan Valley a World Heritage Site in 2003. Today there is a rebuilding programme in progress, where scientists are using digital imagery to reconstruct the statues based on surviving fragments. Some feel that the alcoves should be left empty as a reminder to how destructive and careless humans can be for their own heritage.  

History washed away

In some cases damage to heritage sites is unavoidable. The aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 saw devastation of not only life, but of communities, environments and histories. Several World Heritage Sites were damaged by the earthquake and tsunami. Although this seems superficial when compared to the loss of human lives, consider for a moment the prospect of surviving communities whose entire history and culture has been washed away.

When the tsunami swept into the port of Banda Aceh, killing at least 70,000 people, it also destroyed much of the city’s surviving colonial heritage. The Dutch were responsible for building many railway lines, bridges and schools in the town.  Now that this infrastructure has been virtually destroyed, the surviving residents are presented with a clean slate on which to tell their own story. Although the tsunami has decimated the town, it has also presented the Indonesians with an opportunity to learn from history, and create a town that reflects the richness and ingenuity of their own culture. In the face of so much human loss, it is up to the survivors to look towards their future and decide how they can pass on the stories from their ancestors to future generations and ensure that their heritage lives on.

Heritage on your doorstep

So how does World Heritage, particularly sites in the Danger list translate to PSHE and citizenship in the classroom? For coordinators looking for a global theme of study that incorporates issues of development, politics and effects of civil conflict there are some thought-provoking case studies. World Heritage has the potential to inspire young people to become future custodians of their own heritage. Nurturing awareness, respect and tolerance by studying how other countries are caring for (or damaging) their heritage can raise awareness of how we look after special places in our surroundings. For example, is the integrity of a listed building under threat from poor planning or neglect in your town? Is there a local beauty spot you know threatened by too many tourists? Heritage is on your doorstep if you care to look for it, and offers a great opportunity for young people to engage with history, their community or environment. By creating more responsible and socially aware citizens, surely we can be confident that we are leaving the world’s heritage in good hands for the future.

Dr Anjana Khatwa is education coordinator for the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site

First published in Learning for Life, March 2007