For Tim Badman, the director of the World Heritage Program at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the WHC meetings in Cambodia this year produced a welcome strong yield of natural site inscriptions.
But just as importantly, the meetings over the last two weeks at the Peace Palace reaffirmed the WHC’s credibility as an entity that held true to its original purpose: the inscription and long-term protection of places that have universal value to all people.
Created in 1948, the IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest conservation network with a staff of more than 1,000 people and more than 1,000 members including 100 state members. For the World Heritage Committee, the IUCN serves to provide knowledge, experience and technical support.
“There has been a growing concern about the credibility of the convention,” Badman said. “The credibility has been challenged, whether the sites are really up to standard and fulfilling the idea of outstanding universal value, and the degree to which the sites are suffering from growing threats.”
Yet, the credibility of the convention was largely reaffirmed in Cambodia with what Badman called a strong level of integrity for listings of natural heritage.
“For us, the growing threats to natural world heritage are the big credibility test for world heritage for the next 10 years.”
Badman was glad to report that the WHC delegates had absorbed and employed the advice IUCN provided.
“The committee has supported the advice we have provided and we’ve seen some important and fantastic sites. This has been a year of mountains and deserts,” he said. “The committee has held the line on standards and we have seen a strong level of integrity for listings this year for natural heritage,” he said.
Even after the sites are inscribed, there remains a long-term need to protect them from various threats, he said.
“We are really concerned by the elevated level of threats the sites are facing. For example, East Rennell in the Solomon Islands, one of 17 natural sites on the listing, is under pressure from logging and invasive species,” Badman said.
“We’re seeing growing threats from mining starting to put pressure on a range of world areas and that’s a growing concern. There are infrastructure threats including roads and dams. The concern about the growing threats is really elevated and that is the challenge now, to realise the political will to protect sites that have got not enough management, staff and resources.”
He gave the example of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which he says is under pressure from development and shipping, with issues of water quality, sediment and agricultural chemicals.
The World Heritage Committee has inscribed nearly 1,000 sites round the world so far, out of which 222 are natural sites. In addition to Cambodia’s Angkor, other famous inscribed sites around the world include the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, America’s Grand Canyon and Japan’s Mount Fuji, which was inscribed during this Cambodia-based meeting.
Badman says the key phrase is “outstanding universal value”.
“The convention represents the highest ideal of the international community to come together to protect these places; places so exceptional that they transcend national responsibility and we have a common responsibility to protect them,” he said.
Badman said the WHC discussions were both about the listing of sites and the conservation of existing sites.
He praised Deputy Prime Minister Sok An for his role as chairman.
“Sok An has been doing very well. He’s a very calm and engaging chairperson who is making sure everybody is heard and the conclusions of the debate are as constructive as possible. The meetings have been really great, beautifully organised and with an extremely warm welcome,” Badman said. “The atmosphere is very pleasant and even though there are difficult issues, it has been a very collegial atmosphere.”
Badman explained the work of IUCN.
“We’re not an NGO and we’re not government. We bring the civil society, the world of NGOs and the conservation community together with the conservation community in government, and occupy the space to bring those people together,” he said.
For the World Heritage Committee, IUCN serves as independent advisors, bringing together an expert network and giving what Badman calls the best objective technical advice possible.
“We’ve got a global network of 10,000 experts and an IUCN red list of threatened species. We make the accepted global standards for threatened species on the planet,” he said.
Badman said a high point of the meeting was the inscription of the Namib Sand Sea in Namibia.
“They proceeded by consensus and there was a round of applause, flags waved, screams of joy in the room, speeches given by the government representatives. Inscription is a source of natural pride and it’s a real recognition.”
The other highlight in a year of deserts and mountains, Badman said, were the inscriptions of the two million-hectare Tajik National Park in Tajikistan, the El Pinacate desert in Mexico, Mount Etna in Sicily, Mount Fuji in Japan and mountains in Tian Shan, northern China.
Badman said Cambodia’s Angkor is one of the best known world heritage areas.
“The challenge is to make sure you conserve and don’t lose this exceptional place.”
Another area of interest for Badman is the Tonle Sap biosphere reserve. The IUCN has an office in Phnom Penh and headquarters in Gland, Switzerland.
Trained as a geologist, UK citizen Badman said humankind had been on the earth only a comparatively short time in geological history.
He’s been involved with the IUCN for 10 years and he says climate change is a big concern.
“It’s a fragile planet we live on and you can feel the changes. Climate change is of great concern and we’re seeing very rapid changes. By reducing the quality of functioning nature we make ourselves more vulnerable,” he said.
IUCN was instrumental in the establishment of the WHC in 1972 and was named its advisory body and has done so for the last 40 years. IUCN is funded by members, partners and projects including UNESCO as well as support from Switzerland, Germany, Australia and the MAVA family foundations in Switzerland.
Badman said WHC members look to the IUCN for objective, technically strong and constructive advice.
“We’re here to try to speak the truth as best as we can see it and network in the best scientific and technical knowledge at our disposal. Do it in a constructive way. We think working with nature is a good solution to the challenges we have facing the world including food security and climate change.”