©UNESCO/Brandon Rosenblum
A sea creature swims in the waters near the Belize Great Barrier Reef, one of nearly 20 World Heritage Sites declared endangered by UNESCO, with or without climate change.

18 Vital Indigenous UNESCO World Heritage Sites That Are Threatened

Steve Russell

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.

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

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. (Photo: Wikimedia)

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.

The Belize Great Barrier Reef is endangered, says UNESCO. (Photo: ©UNESCO/Brandon Rosenblum)


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