No-Go at the WPC

The topic of no-go on industrial activity was salient at the 2014 World Parks Congress. It came up particularly in reference to conservation of World Heritage Sites, one of the conference’s cross-cutting themes. Natural World Heritage sites are internationally recognized as the world’s ecological jewels. They include the Galapagos Islands, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Barrier Reef, places so treasured they are recognized as having “Outstanding Universal Value” by the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, an international conservation framework ratified by 187 countries. Numbering only 200, they encompass less than 1 percent of the world’s surface and only 10 percent of all protected areas, yet, as one would reasonably expect, their immense ecological and cultural value earns them special designation among protected areas. The World Heritage Committee’s position has long been that mineral, oil and gas exploration are incompatible with World Heritage status, a message that should presumably go without saying.

But apparently the message bears repeating. A number of World Heritage Sites have recently come under the barrel of industrial development, including Virunga National Park, Africa’s first national park, a refuge for mountain gorillas and now a target of oil prospectors from SOCO, a British-owned company. The World Heritage Committee has condemned the incursion, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. In 2012, the committee was persuaded by the Tanzanian government to redraw the boundaries of the Sealous Game Reserve, another WHS’s, in order to permit uranium mining at the edge of the park. Committee members apparently didn’t want to look like they cared more about wildlife than people, as the move was portrayed by the mining company and the Tanzanian government as a critical step on the path to poverty alleviation. The same false dichotomy of conservation versus development is playing out again in Virunga, just as it is around the world, and the World Parks Congress presented an important opportunity for the conservation community to rearticulate a counterpoint.

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Fortunately it did. In the Promise of Sydney, the IUCN officially declared its agreement with UNESCO that mineral, oil, and gas exploration is incompatible with World Heritage Status. A number of major extractives corporations and financiers, including Shell and JP Morgan, have backed the statement and pledged to fulfill it. But many haven’t, and even for those the have, the details of their commitments are troubling. The London Zoological Society reported findings at the conference that of 27 extractives examined, 24 committed to no-go inside WHS’s but none to no-impact. Similarly, none of the 13 financiers examined committed to no-impact, and only 3 had even committed to no-go. In addition, the definition of no-go does not encompass prohibitions against large-scale agriculture or logging that could be potentially more damaging than extractives.

IUCN’s statement on no-go in WHS’s was a positive step, but it’s a no-brainer. Now it’s time to put pressure on corporations and governments to live up to it, and not just governments of developing countries, but our own governments, the ones that continue to set their questionable examples as global models for success. We need a new model, so let’s get going on it already.