Oil Drilling, Mining, and More Threaten Unique Ecosystems Around the World

Industrial development and infrastructure are encroaching on dozens of World Heritage sites, a new study has found.

Muntjacs, also known as barking deer and Mastreani deer, in Khao Yai, Thailand. They are a small deer of the genus Muntiacus and are the oldest known deer, appearing 15 million to 35 million years ago. (Photo: John S Lander/Getty Images)

Apr 5, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Mining, oil and gas exploration, illegal fishing, and other destructive practices are threatening the integrity of 114 out of 229 of the world’s most important natural sites, according to a new report.

Industrial development in and around these World Heritage sites doesn’t just put wild plants and animals at risk, according to the report, released Tuesday by the World Wildlife Fund. It is also endangering ecosystems that more than 11 million people rely upon for food, water, income, shelter, and medicine.

World Heritage sites are locations of cultural or physical significance identified by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Home governments nominate their own sites and agree to protect them when they are added to the UNESCO list. But WWF has found that some countries are much more effective than others at living up to that commitment.

“These protected areas are not divorced from the concept of having people benefit from them,” said Roberto Troya, a vice president at WWF who oversees the group’s programs in Latin America and the Caribbean.

World Heritage sites should be vital sources of livelihoods and income for the people who live in and around them, he added, “but countries are putting all of that at risk for short-term, unsustainable business decisions.”

Many nations, Troya said, feel tremendous pressure to open up protected areas for development to alleviate national debt or other economic crises but fail to consider the long-term value that these World Heritage sites provide. He pointed out that many cities depend on these sites for most or all their water.

WWF found that at least 20 percent of the World Heritage sites face multiple industrial threats, most notably the Belize Barrier Reef System, which supports the income of more than half of Belize’s population. The second-largest reef system in the world, it is beset by offshore oil drilling, agricultural runoff, and coastal development.

Ironically, much of the costal development harming the reef system supports the tourism industry, which depends upon the reef and the country’s other natural resources to attract visitors.

World Heritage Sites at Risk

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Troya noted that the reef supports almost half of Belize’s gross domestic product. “We think that it can be increased if properly managed,” he said.

“Only 15 percent of the reef is currently protected from oil activity,” said Troya. “The rest is not. Imagine an oil spill in such a pristine marine ecosystem. It could be devastating.”

The report also profiled Spain’s Doñana National Park, an important wetland that supports 6 million migratory birds every year. A mining accident in 1998 flooded Guadiamar River, the park’s main source of water, with more than 1.3 billion gallons of toxic sludge and acidic water. Cleaning up the spill cost more than $430 million and took three years. Now the regional government wants to reopen the mine.

But World Heritage sites can be well managed, the WWF report emphasized, noting locations in Nepal, the Philippines, and other countries as examples. “The designation of a World Heritage site should be part of sound governance, policy making, or enforcement,” Troya said, calling them “the goose that lays the golden egg” for local communities.

“World Heritage sites are sources of livelihood and income,” he said. “Countries should not threaten that which will generate golden eggs for many years and many generations.”