Foreign Affairs / Oliver Park

UNESCO World Heritage Sites Under Threat

The Taliban destroyed pre-Islamic Buddha sculptures in the Bamiyan Valley.

The UNESCO world heritage site scheme was created in 1972 in order to protect and draw attention to sites of outstanding historical, cultural and/or natural interest. Since the first sites were inaugurated, over nine hundred have been designated with this special status. While the majority are well looked after, often overlooked are the number of sites which are under grave threat from deliberate destruction or neglect.

As I touched upon in a previous post about Mali, one of these at risk sites is the city of Timbuktu. For centuries a hub of trans-Saharan trade, the city’s historic centre is largely compromised of intricately carved mud buildings many hundreds of years old. However, what the desert winds and the arrival of Europeans failed to destroy is now under grave threat as the radical Islamists who have gained control over much of northern Mali wish to destroy (and have started to) the city’s Islamic sufi shrines, which they view as idolatrous.

Sadly, this is not an isolated case. In Afghanistan, during the dying days of the Taliban regime, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were dynamited and obliterated. The two enormous statues were, like the shrines of Timbuktu, deemed idolatrous by radical Islamists. UNESCO was involved in the futile attempts to persuade the Taliban to preserve the statues and has led discussions over the future of the area (which was not officially given World Heritage site status until 2003) since the regime’s fall, but sadly the valley’s most notable cultural relics are gone.

This cultural decay and destruction is however far from only felt in areas with a radical Islamist presence or suffering civil war. The pre-Columbian city of Chan Chan in Peru is under severe pressure from natural erosion, while many sites given UNESCO world heritage status in the developing world are at risk from unchecked development. Neither is being in the ‘developed’ world a guarantee of a site’s integrity. The Everglades National Park in the United States, for instance, is deemed at risk due to the restriction of water flow caused by urban expansion and agricultural development. While in Germany the Dresden Elbe Valley had its UNESCO listed status removed, due to the construction of a bridge through the centre of the valley.

It is worth noting though that there are success stories. The city of Angkor in Cambodia is just one site has been removed from UNESCO’s list of endangered sites. This was thanks to extensive conservation work made possible in part by UNESCO funding.

Realistically World Heritage sites cannot be protected from those who want to willfully destroy them and have control of the area in which they are situated. Only a long process of education and the promotion of tolerance and understanding, will hopefully stop these vindictive attacks. For those sites suffering slow decay due to neglect, the economic benefits of the preservation of outstanding cultural and natural sites needs to be emphasised. The Angkor ruins, for example, have recently been a major factor in drawing tourists to Cambodia. For, unless the risks unchecked development can pose to sites of global renown is acknowledged and intolerance challenged, it seems likely that many more feats of human ingenuity and sites of natural beauty, will become consigned to the realms of memory and picture.

Oliver Park


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