Fight for the Reef
Fight for the Reef

What does the World Heritage Committee mean for the future of our Great Barrier Reef?

Jul 8, 2017A
Our World Heritage Great Barrier Reef

Our World Heritage Great Barrier Reef

Egypt’s ancient pyramids, Yellowstone National Park, Mount Etna and Stonehenge all sit alongside our Great Barrier Reef on the World Heritage list. Their shared commonality: outstanding value to humanity. Its all sounds very utopian, but how does this help our Reef?

What does World Heritage mean?

There are 1052 World Heritage sites – from coral reefs and rainforests, to ancient civilisation relics and baroque cities. Across the globe, these are places so culturally or naturally important they are deemed to belong to all peoples – irrespective of location.

The concept began in Washington in 1965 as the World Heritage Trust – created to protect superb sites for ‘the entire world citizenry’. It evolved in 1972, when the IUCN and ICOMOS co-created the World Heritage Convention. This international treaty combined their goals – preserving cultural sites and conserving nature – to celebrate incredible places, but also monitor human interactions, to safeguard them.

The rules are firm. A World Heritage site has ‘outstanding universal value’ – meaning it meets at least one of ten criteria (six cultural or four natural). These include being of exceptional natural beauty or a significant natural habitat for conservation. Together, the convention and criteria define World Heritage. Our Great Barrier Reef meets all four natural criteria.

So who are the World Heritage Committee?

The World Heritage Convention is signed by 193 countries – who’ve pledged to identify, conserve and protect World Heritage places in their territory. Known as States Parties, these countries report to the Committee and integrate conservation into their planning, culture and community.

21 of these countries are elected to the World Heritage Committee – their function is to act as international custodians. The role of the Committee is to keep watch on States Parties, to check they’re meeting their duties, and to see whether they need help or guidance – such as during armed conflict or natural disasters. They decide on new listings, plus which properties should be listed as ‘In Danger’ – and the action needed to protect these. Above the Committee, World Heritage forms part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) – under its educational, sciences and culture programme.

The 41st World Heritage Committee Meeting at Krakow, Poland, July 2017 © Bartłomiej Banaszak, Narodowy Instytut Dziedzictwa

The 41st World Heritage Committee Meeting at Krakow, Poland, July 2017
© Bartłomiej Banaszak, Narodowy Instytut Dziedzictwa

What do the World Heritage Committee actually do?

The World Heritage Committee meets annually to maintain the Convention. Reports on World Heritage properties (buildings or natural areas) are examined to check on health and threats. If a property is mismanaged, or under threat from conflict, etc, the Committee urges the State Party to act – or it risks being added to the In Danger list. The Committee encourages State Parties not to see this as a sanction but as a conservation tool to help manage the area better.

So what does that mean for the Great Barrier Reef?

The World Heritage Committee has been a very positive force up to now for our Great Barrier Reef. In 2015 our Reef became a major issue on the Committee’s agenda, due to the Fight For The Reef campaign and Australian government’s intention to dump millions of tonnes of dredge spoil in the World Heritage area. The Committee therefore sought a major response from Australia.

To respond, the Australian and Queensland governments presented The Reef 2050 Plan, which has enabled Australia to avoid an In Danger listing for our Reef. But Australia is still on probation by the Committee. It had to report in December 2016 that it was implementing the 2050 Plan and also to provide a major State of Conservation Report in December 2019 to demonstrate that our Reef is in better condition.

With two severe coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, it will be virtually impossible for theAustralian and Queensland governments to demonstrate that our Reef is better. The Committee will meet again in July 2020 to consider the State of Conservation Report and it is then – if not before – that the Great Barrier Reef may very well be listed as In Danger.

Of course everyone knows our Reef is in grave danger now. However, this year – 2017 – the World Heritage Committee was only looking at the progress the Australian and Queensland governments were making to implement the local conservation measures outlined in The Reef 2050 Plan – which as yet doesn’t mention climate change. The Committee was not assessing the condition of our Reef this year, and so not considering events – such as bleaching – that have occurred since 2015. That’s why it our Reef was not placed on the World Heritage In Danger list here in Krakow.

With climate change proving to be destructive to this well-loved World Heritage property, it’s highly likely that – if global climate action stays slow – we could see an assessment, and change of status at the next meeting, in 2019.

Coral bleaching on The Great Barrier Reef in 2016 - captured by Brett Monroe Garner

Coral bleaching on The Great Barrier Reef in 2017,  between Port Douglas and Cairns © Brett Monroe Garner

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