BAKU, Azerbaijan, July 13, 2019 (ENS) – The World Heritage Committee inscribed 29 new natural and cultural sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List during this year’s session, which took place in Baku from June 30 to July 10 under the chairmanship of Azerbaijan’s Minister of Culture Abulfas Garayev. The Committee also examined the state of conservation of 166 sites already inscribed on the World Heritage List, 54 of which are on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The World Heritage Committee inscribed four new natural sites on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List – one protecting migratory bird sanctuaries in China, another safeguarding ancient broadleaf forests in Iran, the third protecting the vast French Austral Lands and Seas in the southern Indian Ocean, and the fourth is Iceland’s Vatnajökull National Park with its 10 volcanoes and endemic groundwater animals that survived the Ice Age.

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Black-necked cranes on the Yellow Sea-Bohai Gulf World Heritage site along the coast of the Yellow Sea and Bohai Gulf in Yancheng, in east China’s Jiangsu Province (Photo courtesy CCTV via Xinhua)

In addition, one new mixed natural and cultural site was inscribed on the list – Brazil’s Paraty and Ilha Grande, which protects the historic center of the coastal town of Paraty and four protected natural areas of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, one of the world’s key biodiversity hotspots.

In China, the migratory bird sanctuaries along the coast of China’s Yellow Sea-Bohai Gulf are on an intertidal mudflat system considered to be the largest in the world. These mudflats, as well as marshes and shoals, are exceptionally productive and serve as growth areas for many species of fish and crustaceans.

The intertidal areas of the Yellow Sea-Gulf of Bohai are a paradise of global importance for the gathering of migratory bird species that use the East Asian-Australasian flyway. Large gatherings of birds, including some of the world’s most endangered species, depend on the coastline as a stopover to molt, rest, winter or nest.

In Iran, Hyrcanian forests form a unique forested massif that stretches 850 kilometers along the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. The history of these broad-leaved forests dates back 25 to 50 million years when they covered most of this Northern Temperate region. These ancient forest areas retreated during the Quaternary glaciations and then expanded again as the climate became milder.

The Quaternary glaciation, also known as the Pleistocene glaciation, is an alternating series of glacial and interglacial periods during the past 2.58 million years and is ongoing. Since earth still has ice sheets, geologists consider the Quaternary glaciation to be ongoing, with Earth now experiencing an interglacial period.

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A stuffed Caucasus Leopard, Panthera pardus tulliana, from 1865 in the Georgian National Museum (Photo by Jonathan Cardy via Wikipedia)

The biodiversity of these forests is remarkable: 44 percent of the vascular plants known in Iran are found in the Hyrcanian region, which only covers seven percent of the country. To date, 180 species of birds typical of broad-leaved temperate forests and 58 mammal species have been recorded, including the iconic Persian Leopard, Panthera pardus tulliana.

The French Austral Lands and Seas, a vast, magnificent oceanic island and marine system larger than mainland France, became the world’s largest World Heritage site, which covers the Crozet Archipelago, the Kerguelen Islands, Saint-Paul and Amsterdam Islands as well as 60 small sub-Antarctic islands.

This “oasis” in the middle of the Southern Ocean covers an area of more than 67 million hectares and supports one of the highest concentrations of birds and marine mammals in the world, including the largest population of King Penguins and Yellow-nosed albatrosses in the world. The remoteness of these islands from centers of human activity makes them well-preserved showcases of biological evolution and a unique terrain for scientific research.

The volcanic region of Vatnajökull National Park covers an area of over 1.4 million hectares, nearly 14 percent of Iceland’s territory. It takes in 10 central volcanoes, eight of which are subglacial. Two of these are among the most active in Iceland.

The interaction between volcanoes and the rifts that underlie the Vatnajökull ice cap takes many forms. The most spectacular is the jökulhlaup, a sudden flood caused by the breach of the margin of a glacier during an eruption. This recurrent phenomenon has led to the emergence of unique sandur plains, river systems and rapidly evolving canyons.

In Brazil, the new mixed site, Paraty and Ilha Grande, located between the Serra da Bocaina mountain range and the Atlantic Ocean, includes the historic center of Paraty, one of Brazil’s best-preserved coastal towns.

In Brazil’s Atlantic Forest the site is one of the world’s five key biodiversity hotspots with an wide diversity of species, some of which are threatened, such as the jaguar, Panthera onca, the white-lipped peccary, Tayassu pecari, and several primate species, including the woolly spider monkey, Brachyteles arachnoides.

On July 5 during the Baku session, the World Heritage Centre and partners presented the scope, aim, and expected deliverables of the Resilient Reefs climate adaptation initiative.

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Scuba diver explores the Belize Barrier Reef, Jan. 3, 2011 (Photo by Hans Alseike)

This four-year US$9 million public-private consortium will build climate resilience leadership in an initial five UNESCO World Heritage Listed coral reefs, including Rock Islands Southern Lagoon in Palau; the Lagoons of New Caledonia, a French territory; the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, as well as the Ningaloo Coast and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, based in Geneva, is an Advisory Body to the World Heritage Committee. After gathering input from the IUCN delegation he headed in Baku, Peter Shadie, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, expressed disappointment that the recommendations of the IUCN and other Advisory Bodies as often disregarded by the Committee.

“I am often asked how do the Advisory Bodies feel when their recommendations are so routinely overturned. It is a good question. Indeed it can be hard to stay positive when so much diligent technical work appears to be given little consideration, thus giving the impression that improving the situation on the ground for sites is not a priority.”

“No matter our efforts and the quality of our advice, we continue to see many of the most threatened sites deteriorate,” said Shadie.

“It has been particularly disheartening this year to hear references to sustainable development as a reason to water down conservation standards,” Shadie said. “At a time when the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, IPBES, calls for transformative change to protect fast deteriorating ecosystems and biodiversity, the world needs better development models,” he said.

“Natural World Heritage sites can and do provide these models. They contribute to many Sustainable Development Goals, and their conservation should not be perceived as at odds with development needs,” said Shadie.

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Vaquita, the world’s smallest and most endangered marine mammal, in the Gulf of California, 2008 (Photo by Tom Jefferson / NOAA)

“The World Heritage Convention remains one of the most effective instruments for nature conservation, and we can only strive to maintain and restore its reputation,” Shadie said. “Seeing this bigger picture is what keeps us positive. It is why, as a team and as an organization, we will never give up on quality and belief in the World Heritage Convention’s true potential.”

Danger listing is now seen as discouraging to governments. Shadie explained that “the List of World Heritage in Danger is meant to be a constructive mechanism giving urgent support to the most threatened sites. However, he said, “it seems many Committee members perceive danger listing as a discouragement for States Parties.”

Of the three danger-listing recommendations by IUCN, only one – the Gulf of California in Mexico – was adopted with the State Party’s agreement. The same advice had been rejected in previous Committees, despite the dramatic situation of the vaquita porpoise, one of the world’s 100 most threatened species, whose population is now close to extinction.

On the other hand, in Baku the Committee did not take into consideration the recommendation to inscribe the Sundarbans of Bangladesh or Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia and Albania on the Danger List despite what Shadie calls “a critical state of conservation.”

One legitimate concern with danger listing is that it does not trigger significant direct funding to support sites in trouble, Shadie said. “While in many cases it has generated additional international assistance, there is no explicit and direct financial incentive to danger-listing and many countries see it as unhelpful. Supporting sites in danger should be the Convention’s first duty, and we must restore that mission.”

“We now see the Committee modifying the majority of Advisory Body recommendations (83.7 percent) to push decisions to be more favorable for nominations and softer on conservation commitments,” Shadie warned. “Unchecked, this widely acknowledged politicization of decision-making can lead to severe credibility concerns and undermine the Convention.”

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