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UNESCO Expands List of World Heritage in Danger

PARIS, France, July 4, 2009 (ENS) – The largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere has been placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, and an Italian Alpine mountain range and a coastal wetland in Germany and The Netherlands have been newly inscribed for protection on the World Heritage List.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee designated the two new natural sites of outstanding universal value and 11 cultural sites at its annual meeting that concluded in Seville, Spain earlier this week.

The committee also inscribed two natural sites on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger to help raise international support for their preservation.

Mangroves on the barrier reef coast of Belize (Photo by Eric Heupel)

Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System was placed on the Danger List mainly because of the problem of mangrove cutting and excessive development in the site. This reef system was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1996 as the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, with offshore atolls, several hundred sand cays, mangrove forests, coastal lagoons and estuaries.

This series of coral reefs straddles the coast of Belize, roughly 300 meters (0.2 mile) offshore in the north and 40 kilometers (25 miles) in the south. It extends for about 300 km (185 miles), making it the second largest coral reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Mangroves are being cleared for vacation and retirement homes, hotels, roads, ports, casinos, golf courses, rice fields and shrimp farms. Their destruction erodes fragile coastal lands, eliminates fish and shellfish nurseries, and natural wind and storm-surge breaks.

While requesting stricter control of development on the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, the World Heritage Committee also requested the reinstatement of the moratorium on mangrove cutting on the site which expired in 2008.

Los Katios National Park in Colombia was placed on the Danger List at the request of the government of Colombia so as to help mobilize international support for the preservation of the site which is threatened by illegal extraction of timber.

Inscribed in 1994 for its exceptional biological diversity, the site is also suffering from illegal fishing and hunting.

The Dolomite range in the Italian Alps (Photo © UNESCO/Tappeiner)

The Dolomites, a mountain range in the northern Italian Alps with 18 peaks which rise higher than 3,000 meters, is one of the two natural sites added to the World Heritage List this year.

“It features some of the most beautiful mountain landscapes anywhere, with vertical walls, sheer cliffs and a high density of narrow, deep and long valleys,” the committee said. Nine areas present “a diversity of spectacular landscapes of international significance for geomorphology marked by steeples, pinnacles and rock walls, the site also contains glacial landforms and karst systems.”

The Dolomites are characterized by dynamic processes with frequent landslides, floods and avalanches. The site also features “one of the best examples of the preservation of Mesozoic carbonate platform systems, with fossil records,” the committee explained.

The other natural site added to the list this year is the Wadden Sea in Germany and The Netherlands, encompassing the Dutch Wadden Sea Conservation Area and the German Wadden Sea National Parks of Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein.

This a large temperate, flat coastal wetland environment is marked by tidal channels, sandy shoals, seagrass meadows, mussel beds, sandbars, mudflats, salt marshes, estuaries, beaches and dunes.

The inscribed site represents over 66 percent of the whole Wadden Sea. It is inhabited by marine mammals such as the harbor seal, grey seal and harbor porpoise and is also a breeding and wintering area for up to 12 million birds a year. “The site is one of the last remaining natural, large-scale, intertidal ecosystems where natural processes continue to function largely undisturbed,” the committee said.

The committee expanded one World Heritage site. The Philippines’ Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is an extension to the Tubbataha Reef Marine Park inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1993. The extension represents a threefold increase in the size of the original site.

For the second time in the history of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage adopted by UNESCO in 1972, a site was removed from the World Heritage List when the committee decided that Germany’s Dresden Elbe Valley could no longer retain its status as a World Heritage site of outstanding universal value. The decision was based on the construction of a four-lane bridge in the heart of the cultural landscape that is now underway.

Since Dresden Elbe Valley was removed, the World Heritage List now numbers a total of 890 sites, including both natural and cultural properties.

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