Lake Moraine in Banff National Park, Canada, part of the Rocky Mountain National Parks system that UNESCO says is in danger of being encroached upon by industrial development.

Grand Canyon, Everglades: 10 Threatened Indigenous UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Steve Russell

UNESCO world heritage sites in Indian country are in danger, and most of those sites are historically or spiritually important to the indigenous peoples living nearby. There are only 229 world heritage sites in the entire world recognized as such by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Of that number, virtually half—114—are threatened by economic development, according to a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund.

North America contains 20 world heritage sites. Latin America and the Caribbean contain 41. UNESCO distinguishes between natural sites and mixed sites that also deserve protection for cultural reasons. UNESCO looks for “cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.”

Sites that can meet that standard in the Americas typically had great significance to indigenous people before the colonists came. Indians will have built most ruins of the appropriate age, and most of the truly breathtaking natural features in the Americas were or are sacred to peoples who lived nearby, places of ceremony and prayer.

Here is a list of threatened world heritage sites in North America, along with the nature of the threat. Read this list to ask whether UNESCO world heritage sites in the Americas are important to surviving Indigenous Peoples. It’s our world, too.


Canada Rocky Mountain Parks world heritage site was designated as exemplary of the beauty of the Rocky Mountains and habitat for endangered species. The site encompasses four national parks (Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Yoho) and three British Columbia parks (Hamber, Mount Assiniboine, Mount Robson). It also contains the Burgess Shale site, one of the finest fossil beds in the world. Burgess was a national heritage site on its own before being included in the Canada Rocky Mountain Parks site.

Archaeological digs within the site have shown that occupation by the Kootenay people goes back at least 4,000 years.

The primary threat to the parks is the challenge of water management. Development is proceeding at a pace that outstrips the available water and in the fight over the headwaters of Alberta; the wilderness has less political clout than developers.

Lake Moraine in Banff National Park, British Columbia, part of the Canada Rocky Mountain Parks world heritage site considered endangered by UNESCO. (Photo: iStockphoto)

Wood Buffalo National Park is the largest national park in Canada and the second largest in the world. The park is bigger than Switzerland.

It was established in 1922 to protect the largest surviving herd of free-roaming wood bison. It also contains one of two known nesting sites for endangered whooping cranes. Unfortunately, Wood Buffalo is directly north of the Athabasca Oil Sands.

Wood Buffalo is threatened by water management practices and mining for bitumen (tar sands crude). The danger to Wood Buffalo was brought to world attention when the Mikisew Cree First Nation filed a complaint with UNESCO and the complaint was sustained.

RELATED: Many of Canada’s National Parks Now Honor First Nations Peoples

Wood Buffalo National Park (Photo: Parks Canada)


Calakmul and surrounding tropical forests. This ancient Mayan city is threatened by water management practices, and the forest is in danger of the same fate as too many tropical forests, destroyed by logging for short-term profit.

The Mayan city of Calakmul, Mexico, is one of the World Heritage Sites highlighted by UNESCO as endangered. (Photo: iStockphoto)

El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve occupies part of the Mexican state of Sonora and the Tohono O’Odham Nation. It preserves high desert animal habitat and contains three sets of volcanic peaks with the resulting craters, dried lava, and volcanic sand. Human habitation goes back over 20,000 years. It is also the northern terminus of the “jaguar cultural corridor” stretching down through South America and safeguarded by tribal traditions north to south

RELATED: The Jaguar Corridor: Protecting the Sacred Cat

The reserve is threatened by poor management of limited water, combined with road and other infrastructure construction that aggravates the shortage.

El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site straddling the U.S.–Mexico border, is in danger. (Photo: Jack Dykinga via Wikimedia)

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. In the central Mexican states of México and Michoacán, the forests are a winter haven for more than a billion monarchs from all over North America. Tourists come from vast distances to see the colorful animals fill the sky and to be covered in them.

Wood harvesting is impinging on butterfly habitat and destroying the world’s heritage for short-term profit.

The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in danger from logging. (Photo: iStockphoto)


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