Heritage was long absent from the mainstream sustainable development debate, despite its crucial importance to societies and the wide acknowledgment of its great potential to contribute to social, economic and environmental goals.  Based on a strong appeal from national and local stakeholders, the 2030 Agenda adopted by the UN General Assembly integrates, for the first time, the role of culture, through cultural heritage and creativity, as an enabler of sustainable development across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). World Heritage may provide a platform to develop and test new approaches that demonstrate the relevance of heritage for sustainable development.

On 19 November 2015, the 20th General Assembly of the States Parties to the World Heritage Convention adopted a Policy for the Integration of a Sustainable Development Perspective into the Processes of the World Heritage Convention. The overall goal of the policy is to assist States Parties, practitioners, institutions, communities and networks, through appropriate guidance, to harness the potential of World Heritage properties and heritage in general, to contribute to sustainable development. This will therefore increase the effectiveness and relevance of the Convention whilst respecting its primary purpose and mandate of protecting the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of World Heritage properties. Its adoption represents a significant shift in the implementation of the Convention and an important step in its history.

So where does education – and environmental education in particular – come in to play? There are, arguably, strong links between cultural heritage and environmental goals and therefore between world heritage and environmental education – those places that benefit from world heritage status are exemplar locations to learn ‘about’, ‘in’ and ‘for’ the natural and cultural environments.  In the current context of changing demographics and climate, growing inequalities, diminishing resources, and growing threats to heritage, the need has become apparent to view conservation objectives, including those promoted by the World Heritage Convention, within a broader range of economic, social and environmental values and needs encompassed in the sustainable development concept.

By identifying, protecting, conserving and present-ing to present and future generations  — a key component of environmental education — irreplaceable cultural and natural heritage properties of OUV, the World Heritage Convention, contributes significantly to sustainable development and the wellbeing of people.

In applying a sustainable development perspective within the implementation of the World Heritage Convention, States Parties should also recognise the close links and interdependence of biological diversity and local cultures within the socio-ecological systems of many World Heritage properties. These have often developed over time through mutual adaptation between humans and the environment, interacting with and affecting one another in complex ways, and are fundamental components of the resilience of communities. This suggests that any policy aiming to achieve sustain-able development will necessarily have to take into consideration the interrelationship of biological diversity with the local cultural context.

The World Heritage Convention promotes sustainable development, and in particular environmental sustainability, by valuing and conserving places of outstanding natural heritage value, containing exceptional biodiversity, geodiversity or other exceptional natural features, which are essential for human wellbeing.

States Parties should recognise that World Heritage properties themselves often play a direct role in providing food, clean water and medicinal plants and ensure measures are in place for their protection and use in an equitable way.  The World Heritage Convention includes, as one of its strategic objectives: ‘to enhance the role of communities in [its] implementation’. Recognising rights and fully involving indigenous peoples and local communities, in line with international stan-dards, is at the heart of sustainable development.  World Heritage properties are important travel destinations that, if managed properly, have great potential for inclusive local economic development, sustainability and strengthening social resilience. Sustainable forms of tourism development, including community-based initiatives – again read here opportunities for environmental education – should be accompanied by inclusive and equitable economic investment to ensure benefit sharing in and around World Heritage properties.

There follow two examples of World Heritage Sites I have visited, where education via local eco-tourism plays a crucial role to inform and explain, thereby to begin to advocate.

Stone Forest

South China’s Karst landscape is one of the world’s most spectacular examples of humid tropical to subtropical sites. The ‘stone forest’ is huge – it’s really a serial site spread over the provinces of Guizhou, Guangxi, Yunnan and Chongqing and covers 176,228 hectares. It contains the most significant types of karst landforms, including tower, pinnacle and cone, along with other spectacular characteristics such as natural bridges, gorges and large cave systems. The stone forests of Shilin are considered superlative natural phenomena and a world reference. The cone and tower karsts of Libo, also considered the world reference site for these types of karst, form a distinctive and beaut-iful landscape. Wulong Karst has been inscribed for its giant dolines (sinkholes), natural bridges and caves.

Despite its size and difficulty to access — flight into the neighbouring Kunming and movement around and between the sites is realistic only by bus with walking amongst the stones themselves — many groups, including schools and tour parties, were there the weekend I visited with a Scout Troop.

Mosi-oa-Tunya Victoria Falls 

The Mosi-oa-Tunya/Victoria Falls is the world’s greatest sheet of falling water. It is significant worldwide for its exceptional geological and geo-morphological features and active land formation processes with outstanding beauty attributed to the falls, i.e. the spray, mist and rainbows.

transboundary property (it is split between the two very different countries of Zambia and Zimbabwe) extends over 6860 ha and comprises 3779 ha of the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park (Zambia), 2340 ha of Victoria Falls National Park (Zimbabwe) and 741 ha of the riverine strip of Zambezi National Park (Zimbabwe). A riverine strip of the Zambezi National Park extending 9 km west along the right bank of the Zambezi and islands in the river are all within the Park as far as Palm and Kandahar Islands, with the Victoria Falls being one of the major attractions. The waterfall stands at an altitude of 915m above mean sea level and spans to 1708m wide, with an average depth of 100m and the deepest point 108m. Sprays from this giant waterfall can be seen from a distance of 30 km from the Lusaka road, Zambia and 50 km from Bulawayo road, Zimbabwe.

Basalts have been cut by a river system producing a series of eight spectacular gorges that serve as breeding sites for four species of endangered birds. The property is protected under the National Heritage Conservation Act (1998) and the Zambia Wildlife Act on the Zambia side; and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Act Cap. 20. 14 of 2008 (revised) on the Zimbabwean side. The Plan addresses specifically questions of transboundary coordination, management of urban and tourism facilities and funding schemes.

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Henricus Peters

This article was first published in NAEE’s 2017  journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 115).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.


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