Half of world heritage sites threatened by development

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    Close to half of the sites around the world designated for special protection as areas of outstanding importance for nature are now being threatened by industrial development, a new survey has shown.

    The sites, which include Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon in the US, and China’s giant panda sanctuaries in Szechuan, are all supposed to be protected under the United Nations’ designated world heritage status. But encroachments from industries, including fossil fuel exploration and illegal logging, are threatening to destroy the valuable habitats, according to the conservation charity WWF said today.

    At least 114 of the 229 world heritage sites classed as being of outstanding importance for their natural habitats or their flora and fauna are now subject to fossil fuel extraction concessions, or are under close threat from other industrial activities, according to the report.

    World heritage sites fall under three categories: cultural, natural and mixed. “Natural” heritage refers to sites with outstanding physical, biological and geological formations, including the habitats of threatened species of animals and plants, and areas with scientific, conservation or aesthetic value. Cultural heritage refers to monuments, groups of buildings and sites with historical, aesthetic, archaeological, scientific, ethnological or anthropological value. Mixed heritage refers to sites which include both cultural and natural criteria.

    Critics have suggested that the UN has not done enough to ensure the protection of the many sites that it designates as worthy of special conservation. Unesco world heritage status is a coveted accolade, but also confers responsibilities on the governments in charge of the sites. The UN is considering providing armed forces to protect sites in particular danger, chiefly from war.

    The benefits of preserving such sites – which often play home to some of the world’s rarest species, such as orangutans, pandas and great white sharks – extend far beyond the boundaries of the areas under special protection, according to the report. Jobs in tourism and conservation are found beyond the sites, and the protected areas provide food, plants, water, medicine and other benefits to at least 11m people.

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