Op-ed on Indigenous Issues at the World Heritage Committee Meeting in Paris, June 2011

03 August 2011 | News story

To include indigenous concerns and involve local communities and indigenous peoples as relevant stakeholders in World Heritage processes is not an easy task. Apart from the complex challenges on the ground which protected areas with a wide variety of stakeholders face in general, the rules of the game of World Heritage, the World Heritage Convention and the Operational Guidelines, do not offer provisions on the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples. The Convention does not include an overt reference to human rights or the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, partly due to its early adoption in 1972 when international and national protected area policy frameworks gave very little importance to the relationship with local communities.

Local communities and indigenous peoples have a major role to play in conservation of these sites which they have often managed for generations and are fundamental in sustaining the interaction between cultural and natural values. Being part of UNESCO and the wider UN system, the World Heritage Convention is required to embrace indigenous peoples’ rights and involve local communities in World Heritage site identification, nomination, protection and management. UNESCO has announced that they are in the process of preparing a policy with regard to its programs on indigenous peoples (35COM decisions, p. 269). Resolving the issues between local communities and the World Heritage Convention would go a long way to building more effective systems and more robust conservation.

The proceedings within the ten-day Committee sessions are divided into deliberations on State of Conservation reports and nominations, for cultural and natural sites respectively, and other affairs. Traditionally, media interest peaks during the days when nominations are discussed, and these are also the agenda items of highest interest to State Parties as international recognition of their sites promises tourist revenues and international support in times of crisis. However, State of Conservation reports are gaining more attention recently as the Committee is facing many challenges in the conservation of these sites. One of the sites discussed this year was Lake Turkana in Kenya, the largest desert lake in the world, which is threatened by the largest-dam-to-be in Africa, Gibe 3 in Southern Ethiopia. Not only the existence of the lake, but also the livelihoods of approx. 500,000 people depending on downstream swift-agriculture and fishing are at stake. Working with the rationale of the Convention aimed at protecting the values a specific site is inscribed for, in this case its unique ecosystem, the Committee adopted a decision drafted by IUCN without any amendments.

The decision urges the respective State Parties Ethiopia and Kenya to halt all construction works, to submit a valid Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), sends a mission by the Advisory Bodies to the area and asks all financial supporters to freeze their money until the EIA has been evaluated. The decision also includes a paragraph "with a view to considering” danger listing next year. Similarly, the Golden Altai Mountains in Russia, also with a significant indigenous population, saw a strong unamended decision on this site threatened by a gas pipeline. In terms of minor boundary modifications, Kakadu National Park in Australia now includes a former mining prospect site, Koongarra, which has been inscribed on the list upon request by its Aboriginal owner who was invited by Australia to speak at the Committee.

The Committee also saw an intervention on rights and governance issues by a representative of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), as a follow-up to a short statement at the last Committee Meeting in Brasilia. The statement by Mr Kanyinke Sena of Kenya included several recommendations aimed at making the implementation of the World Heritage Convention consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. IUCN welcomed the cooperative approach by the UNPFII and a Committee decision acknowledged the UNPFII statement (p. 269). Three nominations with indigenous concerns were discussed: Kenya Lake System, Western Ghats in India and Trinational de la Sangha (Congo, Cameroon and Central African Republic).

There was also a Committee decision encouraging State Parties to “involve indigenous peoples and local communities in decision making, monitoring and evaluation of the state of conservation of the properties and their Outstanding Universal Value and link the direct community benefits to protection outcomes; and respect the rights of indigenous peoples when nominating, managing and reporting on World Heritage sites in indigenous peoples’ territories” (p. 271). Next year’s 40th anniversary theme "World Heritage and Sustainable Development: the Role of Local Communities” will hopefully put the topic centre stage in the next Committee meeting from 25 June – 7 July 2012 (tentatively) in St Petersburg, Russia.

Let us now turn to a reflection on how best approach human rights in the context of the World Heritage Convention. While generally I would like to see a firm indigenous rights discourse integrated in Committee deliberations, I am afraid it could trigger a negative reaction and complete rejection of the issues by some Committee members, as it happened in 2001 with the suggestion to establish a consultative body on indigenous issues (WHIPCOE), for reasons that are largely related to ignorance of the situation and lack of political will.  In this sense, a less vocal and more “technical” approach may be more likely to open doors and pave the ground for constructive engagement. Discussions with the World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies IUCN, ICOMOS and ICCROM can get the process of implementing human rights within the World Heritage Convention started. IUCN is particularly influential and deals with the complex subject of natural heritage and rights which is often the foundation for indigenous livelihoods, values and cultural landscapes.

A good strategy to deal with concrete sites, as in State of Conservation reports or nominations, seems to be to work from within the Convention, as applicable, with the instruments, rules and language the Convention provides, as shown above with the example of Lake Turkana. Such a discrete approach seems to achieve encouraging results in current Committee decisions, and, more importantly, lead to on-the-ground conservation benefits for indigenous peoples and local communities.

Committee decisions in English and French can be found here: