A tale of UNESCO, Komodo dragon and mass tourism
The construction activities in Komodo National Park clearly show that even the status of recognized Unesco World Heritage, is not enough to safeguard the planet’s most valuable spots from being damaged or interrupted.
Introduction of invasive species, climate change and tourism are the three largest threats to the world’s natural heritage. This conclusion was drawn by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the basis of their first and so far only assessment of the 252 natural heritage sites under UNESCO protection. These sites are ‘globally recognized as the planet’s most protected areas’, but are under increasing pressure of poaching, economic intervention, water management and illegal trade. Komodo National Park in Indonesia is one the sites facing the consequences.
The World Heritage Convention
This month 48 years ago, in November 1972, UNESCO accepted the Convention concerning the Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage. Since then all but a few countries in the world have signed the World Heritage Convention, as it is commonly referred to, committing themselves to the highest level of nature protection for those sites that have life-supporting benefits for millions of people. Of all sites about 25% protects natural heritage, the others protect cultural heritage. But the distinction between the two categories has been blurred by the growing realization that nature and culture are inter-linked – cultural sites bear biodiversity and natural sites underpin cultural communities – to the extent that we can speak of biocultural ecosystems. To support biocultural diversity, sustainability, and society, UNESCO has initiated designated Biosphere Reserves, one of which is located in Komodo, Indonesia.
The redefinition of the two main types of World Heritage, underlines the importance of their interrelatedness, and raises the status of the natural sites that may be fewer in number, but equal in essential value to the world. All the more reason to refrain from infringing on the integrity of the sites and breaching the commitment to protect. Moreover, there is no time to waste. The most famous sites, like the Great Barrier Reef or Yellowstone Park, have been over-visited and need time to recover. The focus is shifting to the smaller, more remote areas that yet need to be discovered by mass tourism. Adding to the challenges of climate change and pollution, they are now being targeted for commercial exploitation and mass tourism.
Komodo National Park
An example of such an area is the Indonesian island of Rinca, a relatively calm island near Flores where the Komodo dragon has lived for about a million years. The island is part of the Komodo National Park, a recognized UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site since 1991. Still, the government of Indonesia has decided to allow the construction of a tourist attraction on this island. It is part of a broader initiative to mitigate the collapse of tourism due to COVID-19 and to construct ten more ‘Bali-type’ destinations in the most beautiful natural locations in Indonesia. Some refer to the Komodo plans as ‘Indonesia’s own Jurassic Park’, maybe because of the film’s soundtrack that is used to underscore the architect’s impression on Instagram. The question is whether this park will lead to the dragons becoming extinct, like their early contemporaries the dinosaurs before them? The construction of the tourist attraction will threaten their habitat, especially the water supply. The local population, mostly dependent on providing eco-touristic businesses, is worried. But their protests remain unanswered at local and national level, and for now the construction is out of sight as the island is closed for visitors until July 2021. ‘For safety reasons’, but people suspect that keeping out protesters and critical press is just as welcome to some.
How is construction in a globally protected park possible? Should UNESCO, or the international community as a whole, not take measures under the World Heritage Convention? Like many international conventions, the World Heritage Convention is meant to urge nations to comply and to identify, protect, preserve and present world heritage sites, recognizing the fact that this protection is primarily the nation’s own responsibility. Therefore, its stipulations need to be either transformed or incorporated into national laws and policies. The 21 States Parties that form the World Heritage Committee monitor the situation via a periodic reporting system based on national self-assessments (Art. 29 Convention). The Third Cycle of Periodic Reporting was launched last October. But let’s take a look at the situation at the start of the Second Cycle, which was published in 2012. Two conclusions are relevant here. First, the Indonesian legal framework is considered inadequate to comply with the Convention’s objectives in relation to regulation, administration and enforcement. Second, all heritage sites need tourism management to make sure the positive consequences outweigh the negative ones. The report states clearly that ‘tourism on a totally commercial basis has no place inside World Heritage properties and should be confined or diverted to areas outside the boundaries of the property and its buffer zone.’ An idea would be to follow up on the recommendation to keep revenues in the Park and use them for training, education and conservation.
For the sake of conservation of the world’s natural and cultural heritage, it is necessary to step up and do better. For the global community, this means preventing UNESCO from becoming the playground for geopolitical discussions and fiscal restrictions. For the World Heritage Commission, this means keeping out politicization in its decision-making and acting on the basis of expert opinions and the need to protect. For nations, this means a stronger commitment to protect the most precious areas and traditions. For all of us, it means awareness and the will to treat our environment with respect.
For the island of Rinca it may be too late, but let’s hope the remainder of the Komodo National Park will remain intact for the future of the people and the dragons. After all, they have already been living there for over a million years.