By Richard Johnson
A new study has emphasized the growing concern about the adverse impact of the extractive industries exploring for minerals, oil and gas on natural World Heritage Sites. Threats to such sites from mining activities are growing, especially in Africa, where one out of four iconic natural areas is negatively affected.
The study has been conducted by the global environmental organisation IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) together with the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), which brings together many of the world’s major mining companies, JP Morgan Bank, Shell International and UNESCO.
According to IUCN, companies such as Shell and the financial services firm JP Morgan as well as ICMM have recognized the importance of conserving World Heritage Sites and have committed not to undertake activities that would damage them. But a number of countries and companies still profit from resource exploration in these sensitive areas.
“These exceptional places, which cover less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, have been included on the World Heritage List because they are of outstanding value to all of humanity. It’s the duty of every one of us to cooperate in their protection and conservation,” says Tim Badman, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme.
“It is clear that the desired conservation outcomes will not be achieved through individual corporate commitments alone; the task of ensuring that World Heritage Sites are not impacted by extractive industries cannot be effective if it is a commitment of only a few responsible companies,” adds Badman.
The study asks governments – especially but not only those of developing countries – to balance conservation and economic imperatives. “They need the income and employment that the extractive industries bring, but they recognise the environmental and economic importance of conserving natural World Heritage,” says the report.
In some cases, their governance of the extractive industries and of natural resource use and management more generally, is not fully effective. Internal co-ordination of mineral, energy, economic and environmental agencies may be inadequate.
There are also instances where new natural World Heritage properties are inscribed without termination of all existing mineral or energy concessions, without comprehensive assessment of resource use issues and planning of resource use controls beyond new properties’ boundaries, and without complete definition or legal proclamation of buffer zones and related protective measures.
“State Parties, the international agencies and the private sector need clearer insights into each other’s behaviour. Rather than mistrust or surprise at what emerges from the other parties’ decision-making, they should be able to predict and explain the steps and procedures that each of them follow, and the outcomes that result,” avers the study.
It urges all stakeholders to recognise that the function of World Heritage Sites is the conservation of globally recognised Outstanding Universal Value, and not the generation of economic benefits. At the same time, while from some perspectives this implies trade-offs and opportunity costs, natural World Heritage Sites may contribute economically significant ecosystem services.
The study proposes wording for World Heritage Committee policy guidelines that would proscribe extractive industry operations in natural World Heritage Sites and provide for the Committee to encourage and assist State Parties in terminating any existing concessions or operations and taking legislative and planning measures to prevent negative impacts on such properties by extractive industry operations beyond their boundaries.
The report recommends, among others, amendments to the World Heritage Committee’s Operational Guidelines to provide for more stringent review of proposals to modify buffer zone boundaries and to expand the scope of the invitation to State Parties to inform the Committee about developments that might affect the Outstanding Universal Value of properties.
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN are urged to work with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) World Conservation Monitoring Centre to enhance the mapping of World Heritage Site buffer zones and of properties on State Parties’ Tentative Lists; to work with State Parties and the extractive industries to undertake a global survey of mineral and energy concessions in natural World Heritage properties and their buffer zones and to enhance the monitoring of natural World Heritage properties; and to work with affected State Parties to develop a fuller understanding of artisanal mining in and near natural World Heritage Sites.
The study goes back to 1998 when the World Heritage Centre (the focal point in UNESCO for all matters related to the World Heritage Convention) began to discuss the critical situation with the then International Council on Metals and the Environment (ICME), and it was addressed at the 23rd session of the World Heritage Committee comprising 21 State Parties to the Convention on a rotating basis at Marrakesh in 1999.
The issue remained on the agenda throughout the following decade, which saw milestone declarations in 2003 by the ICMM and Shell that they would not explore or exploit mineral or hydrocarbon resources in natural World Heritage Sites. ICMM’s commitment referred to all World Heritage Sites.
A number of banks involved in financing the extractive industries have also developed policy on World Heritage Sites and other protected areas over the last decade, linked to their commitment to the Equator Principles for project finance and the International Finance Corporation’s development of Performance Standards on Environmental and Social Sustainability. Several banks have committed not to finance extractive industry projects in natural World Heritage Sites.