WHC can list sites, but can it really protect them?

by Eric Johnston

Staff writer

KYOTO — The World Heritage Committee’s first-ever meeting in Japan produced a list of 30 new World Heritage Sites, including eight in Nara. But controversy over the status of a currently listed site in Australia showed the difficulties of protecting them if they are believed to be endangered.

The Temple of Heaven and the Imperial Gardens in Beijing, the Grand Palace in Brussels, the archaeological site of Troy and a cedar forest in Lebanon are some of the more well-known historical sites to make the list.

WHC officials were particularly happy that several sites in the Asia-Pacific region, including the Sub-Antarctic Islands in New Zealand and the Solomon Islands, were included as natural heritage sites. “Traditionally, there has been an imbalance between Europe and America, and Asia. Shortly after the WHC was established in 1972, many old European castles and buildings applied for listing, which meant, initially, many of the qualifications for World Heritage listing applied to stone structures,” said Koichi Matsuura, chairman for the conference.

As more Asian countries became WHC members in the 1980s and 1990s, qualifications for inclusion altered somewhat, making it easier for them to get listings.

Japan joined the WHC in 1992, and now has nine sites that have received designation. The eight sites in Nara that were named include Todaiji Temple, touted as the largest wooden building in the world and the site of one of Japan’s two Great Buddhas.

There was little controversy this year over the inclusion of new sites. But, in the case of declaring existing sites as endangered, the discussions were marked by a clash between Australia and the WHC over the inclusion of Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territories. Diplomats from several European and Asian countries said it was, by far, the dominant issue of the conference.

The Australian government supports a private plan to mine uranium from Jabiluka, which sits on the edge of a vast wetlands. The government says Jabiluka is surrounded by, and thus not part of, the Kakadu World Heritage Site.

Prior to the conference, a World Heritage mission released a report saying that danger to Kakadu’s ecosystem does exist if the mine was built. The mission report called on the Australian government to stop the mine.

This drew a sharp reaction from Canberra.

Environmental Minister Robert Hill called the report “biased” and told the Australian press that the Australian delegation was thinking about pulling out of the conference.