The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is in charge of explaining our planet to space aliens. Everybody who has traveled in the U.S. knows that some interstate highways look just like other interstate highways and attract the same sorts of businesses. One place begins to look like any other, and to feel like you have been somewhere, you need to get off the interstate and meet people and get them to show you around.
I am not informed as to whether most planets are boring, but I know there are places that make this world very special. These are the natural and man-made features that UNESCO designates as World Heritage Sites. They are, by agreement of an organization that represents the whole world, the places you would take a space alien if he or she were scouting locations for an intergalactic bed and breakfast, the places that make you proud to be an earthling—or that at least offset places like Chernobyl.
There are only 229 World Heritage Sites, and 114 of them are currently threatened by various forms of economic development, according to a report released by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund.
The United Nations can designate the sites that matter most but it cannot protect them, since they are in 96 countries all over the world with varying resources for conservation and will to use them.
Brazilian Atlantic Islands: Fernando de Noronha and Atol das Rocas Reserves, are just one of more than 18 UNESCO World Heritage sites with indigenous significance that are endangered.
World Heritage Sites contain so much intrinsic value in addition to the tourism they bring that they are seldom harmed on purpose. The recent purposeful destruction of ruins in Palmyra, Syria is an exception. The so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, took over the oasis in the Syrian desert that offered a catalog of human occupation from Neolithic times through the Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
ISIS looted portable artifacts for the black market and destroyed what they could not carry away. In response, Creative Commons has created an online digital archive of images that will aid reconstruction. All the data collected will be available under a Creative Commons license.
The destruction of Palmyra on purpose is a black swan event. Most human beings have better sense. The activities that threaten World Heritage Sites are mostly conducted by transnational corporations, entities that can often devote more resources to exploitation than nations can to protection. Unlike Palmyra, the purpose is never destruction for the sake of destruction, but rather careless destruction in the search for short-term profits.
Sometimes, sacred places are so because they provide sustenance for a people in the physical as well as spiritual sense. Bison and salmon are more than giant herbivores and fish to the people who depended on them. This is how a coral reef, the cornerstone of marine ecosystems to scientists, becomes a sacred place to the indigenous people who have fished there from time immemorial.
Such a place is the Belize Barrier Reef System in Central America. In our time, the reef is threatened by unsustainable construction destroying the mangroves that anchor the shoreline and killing coral. In addition, agricultural runoff has caused algal blooms that destroy marine plants.
Photo: ©UNESCO/Brandon Rosenblum
The Belize Great Barrier Reef is endangered, says UNESCO.
Ironically, some of the worst construction projects are aimed at increasing the tourism that already supports 190,000 people, over half of the Belize population. The projects include a cruise ship terminal, a mega-resort in Pelican Cayes, an airport and a Formula 1 racetrack.
Adding to construction woes, offshore drilling for oil is about to threaten the reef even if no oil is leaked onto the coral, let alone if it is. In response, the Belizean government has declared a temporary moratorium on offshore drilling and a complete ban on drilling within the designated area of the World Heritage Site.
The ban protects a good 14 percent of the marine ecosystem and leaves the rest vulnerable to leakage, blowouts and tanker accidents. All of these mishaps have happened in the U.S. very recently. It is very expensive to clean crude oil off a beach; it’s impossible to bring dead coral back to life.
The Great Blue Hole, part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, is one of many indigenous-related UNESCO Heritage Sites that are endangered.
Belize got my attention because it’s a major emphasis in the WWF report and because I’ve actually been to the barrier reef, giving the danger an extra emotional tug over abstract policies in places I’ve never been, such as Argentina, where Iguazú National Park is threatened by unsustainable water use.
Photo: Ron Van Oers©UNESCO
Wildlife in Iguazu National Park, Argentina
Argentina is also home to Ischigualasto and Talampaya Natural Parks, being endangered by oil and gas concessions.
Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park is fed by the third largest ice cap in the world, and so will survive climate change longer than Glacier National Park in the U.S. will. However, unfortunately for the park, a massive gold and silver deposit is known to lie long the Argentina and Chile border. A protective law passed in 2010 was litigated all the way to the Argentine Supreme Court, where it was upheld.
The legal battle to protect the glaciers continues on the Chilean side of the border because the glaciers provide water for drinking and agriculture. Gold mining involves cyanide, sulfuric acid and nitric acid that tend to find the water table and release heavy metals in amounts too small for commerce but big enough to poison people and fish: mercury, uranium, and lead.
Photo: © Philipp Schinz/UNESCO
Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina
American expat Peter Keller, reporting on the efforts of the indigenous Mapuche people to protect the glaciers they depend upon, noticed:
It’s interesting how thousands of miles can separate the indigenous communities of Argentina and the United States, but the issues are still the same. On one occasion I had a flashback to several parks where I have worked in the United States. The triggering word was “co-management of parklands.” In some places Indian reservations and parks overlap or are adjacent to one another. Over the past decade, through the development of self-governance legislation, eligible tribes have pursued the idea and practice of managing their own destiny.
The glaciers have not been polluted yet, but the Great Sioux Nation and the Cherokee, among others, could warn the Mapuche about what Black Elk called “the yellow metal that makes white men crazy.”
Bolivia is home to the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, which is threatened by mining concessions.
Rainbow Falls Cataras Arcoiris) in Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, Bolivia
Brazil is chock full of natural wonders colliding with modern development:
Photo: ©UNESCO/Régis Filho
A monkey in the Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves of Brazil
• Atlantic Forest south-East Reserves being eaten away by logging and logging roads.
• Brazilian Atlantic Islands: Fernando de Noronha and Stol das Rocas Reserves, threatened by mining.
• Cerrado Protected Areas: Chapada dos Veadeiros and Emas National Parks, also threatened by mining.
Photo: Brazil National Parks
Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park, Brazil
• Discovery Coast Atlantic Forest Reserves, facing a triple threat from oil exploration, mining, and the resulting roads and rail lines.
Photo: © UNESCO
Discovery Coast Atlantic Forest Reserves
• Iguac?u National Park, threatened by unsustainable water use on the Brazilian side as it is on the Argentinian side, according to the WWF report. Picturesque Iguazú Falls straddles the border between the two nations, leading to the saying that the falls belong mostly to Argentina but the views belong to Brazil.
Photo: Tom Friedel/Wikipedia
A section of Iguazú Falls, which straddles the Argentine-Brazil border and is the centerpiece of Iguac?u National Park in Brazil and its Argentinian counterpart, Iguazú National Park.
• Pantanal Conservation Area, threatened by mining.
Photo: Alicia Yo/Wikipedia
Pantanal Conservation Area
Costa Rica and Panama share responsibility for La Amistad National Park, which is part of the Jaguar Corridor, an attempt to avoid the sacred cat of the Maya and the Inca going extinct by preserving a band of habitat from the U.S. border all the way to South America along which the cats can exchange genes.
This transnational habitat is listed as threatened by mining and unsustainable water use.
Photo: ©UNESCO/Marc Patry
La Amistad National Park Costa Rica, Panama)
Ecuador’s Sangay National Park also suffers from unsustainable water use and incursions of new transportation infrastructure.
Photo: Martin Zeise, Berlin/Wikimedia
Sangay National Park, Ecuador
The Ri?o Pla?tano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras is also part of the Jaguar Corridor, and it is under pressure from settlers clearing away the forest over the objections of the resident Miskito, Tawahka, Pech, and Garífunas peoples. The indigenous struggle to save the Ri?o Pla?tano and therefore their way of life is the subject of a documentary film, Paradise in Peril, distributed by the Center for World Indigenous Studies.
Photo: via GoogleWiki
Ri?o Pla?tano Biosphere Reserve
Peru contains a World Heritage Site of great significance to indigenous people, listed as the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu. The name is in the Quechua language, and translates roughly to “old peak.”
Machu Picchu was built by the Inca in the 15th century and was deserted before the Spanish looting of the Inca Empire. Artifacts found at Machu Picchu proved that the Inca smelted bronze, rebutting the claim that all Native American culture was in the Stone Age.
Rocks sacred to the Inca that were defaced by the Spanish in other sites are untouched at Machu Picchu, leading many scholars to believe the Spanish never discovered it.
Photo: Martin St-Amant/Wikipedia
Machu Picchu, Peru
While the WWF report warns of logging in the vicinity, UNESCO is more concerned about tourists loving the site to death. Machu Picchu is the most visited attraction in Peru and it has become closely associated with Inca culture. The site is being restored by Peruvians, who also argued for decades with Yale University’s Peabody Museum over the return of artifacts carried away from Machu Picchu starting in 1911. The last of the Incan artifacts was finally repatriated from Yale in 2012.
Also in Peru, Huascarán National Park contains the central Andean mountains known as Cordillera Blanca and a great many artifacts of the Chavin culture, a pre-Incan people named for the archaeological site where their traces were discovered. What the people called themselves has been lost, but most scholars think it probable that their language was some proto-Quechan, because that is the indigenous language of the vicinity in our times.
The Cordillera Blanca offers chances of finding gold or copper and the mining causes unsustainable water use and pollution of what water there is. Mining and farming are at odds over the limited water supply.
Photo: Maurice Chédel/Wikipedia
Mount Huascarán, landmark and namesake of Huascarán National Park: The mighty peaks of Nevado Huascarán Norte left) and Sur right)
Also threatened by mining is Peru’s Río Abiseo National Park, which contains more than 30 known pre-Columbian archaeological sites. World Heritage designation was moved by the discovery of breeding populations of an animal thought to be extinct, Oreonax flavicauda, the yellow-tailed woolly monkey. The archeological sites and monkey habitat are so fragile that no tourists are allowed to tour Río Abiseo at this time.
The endangered yellow-tailed woolly monkey Oreonax flavicauda), which inhabits Peru’s Río Abiseo National Park.
Finally, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is home to Canaima National Park, home of the indigenous Pemon Indians, linguistically related to the Caribs who discovered Columbus, and of more than 300 animal species not found elsewhere. The most iconic natural feature is Angel Falls, the highest waterfall on the planet, known in the Pemon language as Parakupá Vená, “the fall from the highest point.”
Canaima is very remote, an advantage that may go away amid political pressure for mining concessions and projects to extend utility service lines and other infrastructure.
Angel Falls, in Canaima National Park, Venezuela, which is also home to the Pemon Indians, who call the falls Parakupá Vená, “the fall from the highest point”—and they are indeed the highest waterfalls in the world.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites are not just for the purpose of explaining the high points of our planet to space aliens. Every day, in these collisions between commercial development and natural beauty, it becomes clearer that we humans need to explain the high points of our planet and the critical need to protect them to ourselves.