Our Readers' Opinions
June 10, 2011

The Quest for UNESCO world heritage status


by Louise Mitchell Joseph, Chairperson of the SVG National Trust

Why is it that the National Trust, which prides itself on the value of indigenous heritage,{{more}} seeking the validation by a foreign organisation in its quest for inscription of one of its natural or cultural sites on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites? To achieve inscription, this country will have to spend a minimum of two years of rigorous work preparing its nomination application, which will be examined by the World Heritage Committee sitting in a room on a Paris boulevard. What are the advantages and the perils of being inscribed on the UNESCO list? To achieve inscription, a nomination has to first satisfy the test that it is of “outstanding universal value.” It also has to pass the test of integrity or authenticity and it must have an adequate protection or management system in place. Having a UNESCO world heritage site designation would mean worldwide promotion of the site on a scale that a government such as ours with limited resources could never otherwise accomplish. The site may go from being an unknown backwater to being on the centre of the world’s stage. The price of real estate in and around the site may escalate, thereby creating the temptation on the part of government to allow further development on the site, which may be inimical to the preservation of the site. It is for this reason that the nomination case must demonstrate to UNESCO that there exists a FULL COMMITMENT by the State to preserve the heritage concerned. The management plan must demonstrate the site’s capacity for increased tourism.

The submission by the National Trust of a site for nomination without having secured the full commitment of the State as set out above and without having the proper legislative and management system in place could bring ruin to the same site that it had intended to preserve. As such, the Trust would be reckless to seek nomination before all the ground work is done. Lessons can be learnt from our neighbouring St. Lucia. Not too long after The Pitons were declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, they were visited by Oprah Winfrey who fell in love with the site and bought property there at a very high value, and listed the site as one of the 10 places to visit before you die. This declaration by Winfrey led to an escalation in land values and a consequent surge of land deals in the area. In one instance, the sale of a portion of land in the heart of the Park to foreigners, and the granting of an alien’s licence to own and develop the land became a national controversy. In response to the controversy, the Planning Minister declared publically that “The UNESCO world heritage guidelines were not adequately sustainable for St. Lucia, as they did not provide for the compensation of landowners of the area whose land is now part of the national reserve.” The actions of the St. Lucia government may have risked the site being removed from the List. Its actions were enough to warrant the Heritage Committee having to write to the government to warn against certain development within the boundaries of the site. The main lesson to be gleaned from the St. Lucia case is that it is absolutely critical to have the buy-in not only of the NGOs of civil society and private land owners within the relevant site, but also the blessings at the highest governmental levels. The Government must not just commit to the UNESCO guidelines for getting on and staying on the List, but it must demonstrate a true intention to honour this commitment. The National Trust is now in consultation with relevant stakeholders on the development of our Tentative List, which is reflective of SVG’s cultural and natural properties that may satisfy the test of ‘outstanding universal value.’ It is only items that make this list can then move forward to being nominated to the Heritage Committee for world heritage status.

Some of the sites being considered for inclusion on our Tentative List are:

(1) A serial nomination of the Tobago Cays Marine Park (plus Sail Rock), La Soufriere, and Battowia, as an exceptional range of Lesser Antillean ecosystems – a natural site.

(2) The Petroglyphs of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a testimony to a civilization or past culture – [part of a Lesser Antilles transnational nomination of a Petroglyph trail].

Once the relevant support for a particular site is achieved on all levels, and the proper leg islative and administrative protection is put in place, its naming as a UNESCO world heritage site would achieve the following advantages for SVG:

– It will raise awareness among Vincentians of the value of heritage and the environment;

– It will bring increased tourism not just to the relevant site but to SVG as a whole;

– It will provide an extra incentive to the Government to provide financial resources towards the protection and preservation of the site (thereby reducing the likelihood of the site being another paper park).

The downsides of listing lie in the increased visitors to the site and the burden this may place on its fragile ecosystem. This disadvantage may be mitigated by regulating the visits to the site. Another downside of listing is that it may create a severe restriction on development such as the sale of lands among other activities within the boundaries of the site.

The quest of listing is a noble one provided that it is pursued with eyes wide open and with the support of all concerned.

“One thing is certain, if we do not strive to love one another, and to love our planet as much as we love ourselves, then no further human progress is possible here on Earth.” Tim Flannery.

To volunteer with or join the National Trust please write to svgntrust@gmail.com

For comments write to garifunacountry@gmail.com