On 18th April we celebrated World Heritage Day. I have been lucky enough to visit a great variety of World Heritage Sites around the world, both cultural and natural, and, of course, I live and work in close proximity to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.
The World Heritage Convention is, as its name suggests, a global premise, originating in 1972, and currently ratified by 194 States. The overall aim is to safeguard the wellbeing of exceptional places for the future. One of the reasons I like it is because it treats both natural and cultural heritage as significant. I also like the way in which it acknowledges the significance of the past for the future. ‘Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration’. The World Heritage convention is administered by UNESCO.
It is a bureaucratic process that can take many years to become a World Heritage Site. Individual states compile documents to outline the merits of specific candidates, and these are then checked by local committees under the auspices of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, in the case of natural sites, and the International Council on Monuments and Sites in the case of cultural sites. There are several selection criteria. A state not only has to convince the committee that the site is truly outstanding in global terms, it is necessary to demonstrate the integrity of the site as it currently exists, and, also, that there are reasonable plans to ensure the wellbeing of the location into the future. A lot of work is involved just to make it to the provisional list before the process of evaluation even begins. On the other hand, the paperwork associated with any site is an invaluable source of information about the place.
World Heritage Sites are monitored. It is possible for a site to go on to an endangered list, and even be struck off in exceptional circumstances. In general, the List of World Heritage in Danger is intended to stimulate remedial action. In addition to immediate humanly stimulated threats, such as inappropriate development, recent years have seen the recognition of climate change as a clear and ever-present threat and many states are working hard to mitigate potential problems.
World Heritage Sites are highly physical, and it is possible to visit many of them. It is recognised, however, that other significant aspects of life around the world are less tangible and so a list of Intangible Heritage has also built up. A diverse range of practices and traditions are earmarked here from specific foods, to music and craft work.
While most people are enthusiastic about the nomination of a local World Heritage Site, in practice, the long-term reality has both advantages and disadvantages. It is, of course, always good to see an element of your own locality recognised as of exceptional significance. World Heritage is a powerful draw, however, and can lead to considerable visitor pressure on areas that are often already fragile, remote, and lacking in infrastructure. The accolade of a designation undoubtedly facilitates the acquisition of funds for research and investigation, but, depending on the state, there is usually no money per se when a site is placed on the list. The funnelling of funds into one particular site can also lead to problems for nearby projects when they seek assistance. The recognition of World Heritage status should act as a safeguard for the wellbeing of the site and its immediate location, nevertheless, many people find that this requires an increased level of paperwork that can be onerous and some might suggest that it entails a level of restriction that acts to stifle necessary development.
It is an interesting debate. While the principals behind the World Heritage Convention are hard to fault, as ever the reality has proved to be complex. I love visiting the sites. Designation means that I know the experience will always be rewarding, but as a visitor am I adding to the pressures on places that are already troubled? I am certainly more careful about the locations I visit than I used to be. The next time you see that World Heritage logo of the square (culture) inside the circle (nature), take a moment to reflect on those for whom this place has been and will be significant: past, present, and future.