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The UNESCO World Heritage Site Selection Process

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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By Caroline Smith

The term ‘Heritage’ is not always an easy word for people to define. However, a word that is often used to describe one’s heritage is legacy. It is what we have done in the past, and what we will pass on to the future. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, sums it up well by defining cultural and natural heritages as “irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration…our touchstones, our points of reference, our identity” (World Heritage 2008). After World War I, demand increased for an international movement to protect the World’s heritage, and in 1972, following the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, UNESCO adopted the Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage—and thus the beginning of World Heritage Site listings. This convention spearheaded the universal desire for balance between human interactions (cultural heritage) and the need to preserve our environment (natural heritage).

The UNESCO World Heritage Emblem stands for the close relationship between the world’s natural and cultural diversity. The circle is meant to celebrate the beauty of nature and the inside square represents the effects of combining human skill and inspiration. The circular inscription represents the global mission for the protection of mankind’s heritage, following the shape of the world itself. Image from UNESCO.

The UNESCO World Heritage Emblem stands for the close relationship between the world’s natural and cultural diversity. The circle is meant to celebrate the beauty of nature and the inside square represents the effects of combining human skill and inspiration. The circular inscription represents the global mission for the protection of mankind’s heritage, following the shape of the world itself. Image from UNESCO.

Today, the Convention has 190 State signatories, each committed to upholding the mission of UNESCO’s World Heritage—“to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” But what exactly qualifies as cultural or natural heritage? As defined by UNESCO, cultural heritage includes monuments, such as architectural structures, art and science pieces, while natural heritage includes formations that are of “Outstanding Universal Value from the aesthetic or scientific point of view”—the point of view of conservation, natural beauty, or science (Operational Guidelines 2012). UNESCO focuses on bringing together unique, irreplaceable, and diverse areas of the world as part of our global heritage, a common good that belongs to each of us regardless of nationality.

The Convention also set up the World Heritage Committee, which oversees a World Heritage Fund that allocates grants to sites in need for the purpose of “identifying, preserving and promoting” World Heritage sites (World Heritage 2008). The Committee’s most important job, however, is determining which sites get added to the World Heritage List, a list that now consists of 962 areas (745 cultural, 188 natural, and 29 mixed).

As stated before, in order to be deemed a World Heritage site, the location must be of Outstanding Universal Value, demonstrating international significance; it must “transcend national boundaries and be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity” (Operational Guidelines 2012). It must also meet at least one of the following six cultural (I-VI) or four natural (VII-X) heritage criteria:

Selection Criteria:

    1. To represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;
    2. To exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;
    3. To bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;
    4. To be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;
    5. To be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;
    6. To be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria);
    7. To contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;
    8. To be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;
    9. To be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;
    10. To contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

The protection, management, authenticity and integrity of properties are also important considerations.

This information was taken from the UNESCO website. A more detailed description of each criterion can be found in the 2012 Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, Pages 23-24. http://whc.unesco.org/archive/opguide12-en.pdf

The complicated and often long process begins with each of the 190 States making a “Tentative List”—essentially taking stock of any sites within its territory that demonstrate natural and cultural importance. This is a list that each State Party will pull from when nominating a site for inscription. If a State finds that a site within their boundaries qualifies as having Outstanding Universal Value and demonstrates one of the ten criteria, it may choose to present a nomination file for that site. This file is extensive, including items such as maps, thematic studies, property history, and other necessary documentation needed to prove the Outstanding Universal Value of the site. State Parties are encouraged to seek contributions from local inhabitants, governments, Non-Governmental Organizations, and other people who may be interested or have information regarding the site. Once the file is submitted, the Advisory Bodies must approve it, before sent to the World Heritage Committee. This Committee meets once per year and determines which sites meet the Outstanding Universal Value criteria necessary for Inscription. It has the power to reject or defer a decision, and also can remove sites from the list if they no longer meet the mandatory criteria. However, inscription is only the beginning of the story.

The current UNESCO World Heritage List includes 962 sites, all of which are deemed to be of cultural and natural significance and have been judged as having Outstanding Universal Value. The yellow dots signify cultural sites, the green natural sites, and the red dots are sites in danger. Photo from UNESCO.

The current UNESCO World Heritage List includes 962 sites, all of which are deemed to be of cultural and natural significance and have been judged as having Outstanding Universal Value. The yellow dots signify cultural sites, the green natural sites, and the red dots are sites in danger. Photo from UNESCO.

Once Inscribed on the World Heritage List, the State has agreed to an enduring obligation to ensure the management, conservation, and monitoring of its site(s). They must assess the sites every six years, writing reports on the state of the site and the measures established for the purpose of preservation and conservation. This allows the Committee to determine whether or not a site should be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, such as the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, and the Everglades National Park in the United States. Danger can be caused in many ways, a few of which are listed on the UNESCO Website, including: “Armed conflict and war, earthquakes and other natural disasters, pollution, poaching, uncontrolled urbanization, unchecked tourist development,” and more recently, climate change (Danger 2012). Inscription on this list allows the Committee to allocate funds from the World Heritage Fund for immediate assistance, and also serves to alert the world to the problems at hand with the hope of encouraging increased conservation and preservation efforts.

Rock Islands Southern Lagoon, Palau. Photo by Steven Alvarez, National Geographic

Rock Islands Southern Lagoon, Palau. Photo by Steven Alvarez, National Geographic

As one of the 26 students selected to participate in the 2013 University of Southern California’s Environmental Studies experiential program entitled “Integrated Ecosystem Management in Micronesia,” I have spent the past Spring Semester training through full American Academy of Underwater Sciences Scientific Diver training, and am ending the program by travelling to Guam and to one of the most recently inscribed World Heritage Sites: Rock Islands Southern Lagoon, in the Republic of Palau. After studying the stressed reefs and effects of overfishing, runoff, and military presence in the American Territory of Guam, the class is now conducting multiple species surveys within the restricted Ngderrak Marine Protected Area for the State of Koror in Palau, diving in and around the World Heritage Site, with special permission by the Governor of Koror.

The author “fighting on” during free time after completing her research exercise at the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies on Catalina Island. Photograph by fellow student Megan Herring.

The author “fighting on” during free time after completing her research exercise at the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies on Catalina Island. Photograph by fellow student Megan Herring.

This area is of mixed cultural and natural heritage, and contains 445 volcanically formed islands surrounded by delicate coral reefs. Culturally, the islands contain ruins and remains of small communities whose “abandonment…illustrates the consequences of climate change, population growth and subsistence behavior on a society living in a marginal marine environment” (Rock Islands 2012). Rich in both natural and cultural heritage, it is no surprise that UNESCO deemed it suitable for their list.

Prior to the trip across the Pacific, we spent a week on Catalina Island off the coast of California finishing up dive training and participating in lectures conducted by our five instructors and two teaching assistants. In these lectures, we studied marine species and the biology of coral reefs, as well as compared the marine governance in Catalina (a top-down approach) to that of Palau. Heavily rooted in tradition, Palau exhibits strong cultural and family ties to their coral reefs and marine areas, and thus demonstrates overwhelming support of the Marine Protected Areas and the regulation of the World Heritage Site. This cultural precedence to maintain and preserve the diverse and fruitful natural environment while still preserving their past traditions is exactly why Palau was chosen as exhibiting Outstanding Universal Value.

The Author (center) standing with instructors David Ginsburg and Kristen Weiss and rangers Princess, Harlan, and Mister at the Koror State Capital building.

The Author (center) standing with instructors David Ginsburg and Kristen Weiss and rangers Princess, Harlan, and Mister at the Koror State Capital building.

Part of maintaining the World Heritage Site requires “long term protection and management,” and UNESCO encourages the “constructive use of research on and preservation of traditional knowledge of the marine environment” (Rock Islands 2012). Beginning this year, the Guam and Palau program has added a governance focus to the class, working to map out the ties between the different parties interested in the resources within the area.

On our first day in Palau, I had the opportunity to speak with Harlan, Princess, and Mister, three Rangers for the Koror State Government about their experiences with the UNESCO inscription process. They worked with the past director over the preceding seven years to coordinate and negotiate a nomination file that would meet the UNESCO requirements for inscription. Fortunately, the Koror State Government had previously created a conservation management plan that was comprehensive and already included many of the requirements, including 16 Marine Protected Areas, so the remainder consisted mostly of tweaking and compromising.

“It was a lot of back and forth negotiation with UNESCO,” says Princess, “even though we had already done a lot to protect the area, there was still so much more we had to do.” They seemed proud of the inscription, but ambivalent about the process, and when I asked if the Palauans viewed it as an accomplishment, they responded by stating that most of the local people are not even aware. Perhaps this communication issue could be investigated in the governance research for future classes.

Classmate Amanda Ungco surveys for indicator species at Short Drop Off Reef in Palau. Photo by the author.

Classmate Amanda Ungco surveys for indicator species at Short Drop Off Reef in Palau. Photo by the author.

Harlan, Princess, and Mister joined our class in the field as we recorded underwater data counts of specific indicator species that would be representative of the health of the reef as a whole. Hopeful that the World Heritage Site will bring awareness to the reefs of Palau, the rangers are determined to restore damaged reefs and protect those that are thriving. They are excited and gracious that us researchers have joined them to provide data that they could use to request funding from UNESCO in case the site needs to be placed on the Danger list as climate change becomes more and more prevalent. The rangers are proud of their Palauan culture, and extremely proud of the natural beauty that surrounds them. I am hopeful that future classes can help breach the communication barriers that often inhibit the Koror State Government’s efforts.

The Rock Islands Southern Lagoon has provided us students with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to research the incredible diversity and deep-rooted culture both on land and beneath the sea surface. As one of 26 excited students who are still in shock that the trip is finally here, I have never been more ready to dive on in (pun intended).

Author Bio: Caroline Smith is a rising junior at the University of Southern California pursuing a Bachelors of Science in Environmental Studies from the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. After completing her research as part of the Guam and Palau Program, she plans to study abroad in Queensland, Australia to continue researching the marine governance and regulation structures, as well as participating in further scientific diving research. She intends to pursue a Master’s Degree in Environmental Studies as part of the USC Progressive Degree and to continue on to law school to earn a degree in Environmental Law.

Works Cited:

Alvarez, Steven. Palau‘s Rock Isands. N.d. Photograph. National Geographic, Palau. National Geographic. Web. 24 Mar. 2013.

“Rock Islands Southern Lagoon.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. N.p., 2012. Web. 24 Mar. 2013.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

World Heritage Information Kit. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2008. 2008. Web. 24 Mar. 2013.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. Paris: Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, 2012. 2012. Print. 20 Mar. 2013.

“World Heritage in Danger.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. N.p., 2012. Web. 22 Mar. 2013.

Previously in this series:

The 2013 Guam and Palau Expedition Begins
A New Faculty Member on the Team
An Analysis of Sargassum Horneri Ecosystem Impact
Marine Protected Areas and Catalina Island: Conserve, Maintain and Enrich
Northern Elephant Seals: Increasing Population, Decreasing Biodiversity
The Relationship Between the Economy and Tourism on Catalina Island
Guam and Palau 2013: New Recruits and New Experiences
Bringing War to the “Island of Peace” – The Fight for the Preservation of Jeju-do
Dreading the Dredging: Military Buildup on Guam and Implications for Marine Biodiversity in Apra Harbor
Is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Doing Enough?
The Status of Fisheries in China: How deep will we have to dive to find the truth?
The Philippines and Spratly Islands: A Losing Battle
The Effects of Climate Change on Coral Reef Health
The Senkaku/Diaoyu Island Dispute in the East China Sea

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences through the Environmental Studies Program.   This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies

About the Author: Dr. Jim Haw is Ray R. Irani Professor of Chemistry and director of the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is also a scientific, technical and recreational diver.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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