After the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization rattled its saber a year ago, a large Austrian real estate developer dropped its plans to build high-rise towers just outside Vienna's historic center. The project had become too controversial to move forward. Similarly, opposition from the UN agency helped halt construction of a shopping and entertainment center near the Taj Mahal in India and thwarted the introduction of cable-car access to the top of Machu Picchu in Peru. In each of these cases, UNESCO threatened to strip an iconic landmark of its status as a World Heritage Site. Such a thing has never happened, but the mere possibility instills fear in local authorities—a delisting would represent a national disgrace, undercutting a site's status as a tourist attraction and potentially costing millions of dollars in lost revenue.
UNESCO has spent the past three decades working to preserve the earth's natural and man-made heritage for posterity, with considerable success. The honor of an inscription on its ever-lengthening World Heritage List obligates a nation to care for the recognized site, and puts authorities under an international spotlight in the event of neglect or poor management. "The list has huge diplomatic significance and has become a powerful advocacy tool," says Bonnie Burnham, president of the privately run, New York-based World Monuments Fund. At the same time, the power of the list can be a double-edged sword: the designation provides invaluable protection against overdevelopment or environmental damage, but it is also a marketing opportunity for tourism, opening the door, in some cases, to the very threats that led to a site's inclusion in the first place. This was true of Kathmandu, Nepal, which was remote and idyllic when first listed in 1979. Now, uncontrolled sprawl engulfs what once was a hippie nirvana; last year, Kathmandu was placed in UNESCO's "endangered" category, meant to highlight particularly threatened places.
"Many of the cultural sites are in serious trouble, and things occur at them that shouldn't," Burnham says. Some countries regard heritage sites as "cash cows," she adds, and at many of them "tourism officials are calling the shots," rather than the experts in preservation one might expect. Burnham cites fast-food stands and advertising panels adjacent to the Great Wall of China, hot-air balloons for aerial sightseeing at the temples of Angkor in Cambodia, and tourist bazaars that visitors must traverse to enter the Valley of the Kings in Egypt and the Buddhist temple of Borobudur in Indonesia. Is the World Heritage List making victims of its own successes?
To be designated a World Heritage site, a place must be of "outstanding universal value," an attribute determined by an intergovernmental body known as the World Heritage Committee, composed of representatives from UNESCO member states. The 1972 World Heritage Convention, which gave birth to the list, specifies that a site must be "unique, irreplaceable, and authentic." The list now comprises 788 sites in 134 countries. These include iconic structures such as the Acropolis, the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, and Chartres Cathedral; celebrated natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and the Galápagos Islands; and hundreds of lesser-known buildings and landscapes.
Of course, what makes a place unique, irreplaceable, and authentic—not to mention of universal value—can easily be disputed, even among tactful diplomats. For example, when the city of Brugge, Belgium, came up for consideration in 2000 because of its role in the inception of the Flemish school of painting, Thailand's delegate to UNESCO objected that this was a matter not of universal but rather of regional value to Europe.
Brugge eventually made the cut, reinforcing Western civilization's preeminence on the list. At present, the overwhelming majority of the sites are in Europe and the Americas. The imbalance stems in part from economic factors: Western governments conduct well-funded campaigns to have their sites listed, and they maintain well-run institutions capable of preparing the documents necessary for a nomination. UNESCO is trying to offset this by offering aid to less developed countries readying nominations.
A site can be nominated only by the country in which it is located. Revolutions and regime changes, therefore, often lead to new listings, since new governments come to power with different agendas and conceptions of national identity. Afghanistan under the Taliban, for example, went about destroying massive Buddha statues in the Bamian Valley despite worldwide protests, but the successor government has now listed the remnants, and UNESCO is working to help conserve them. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein had plans for an irrigation scheme that would have flooded the ancient Assyrian capital of Ashur. After the U.S.-led invasion, Ashur joined the list with the approval of the new Iraqi Governing Council and its American overseers.
"We are not completely invincible," says Francesco Bandarin, director of UNESCO's World Heritage Centre, which maintains the list. Existing international law lacks the teeth to prevent wanton destruction: when artillery fire from Serbian military forces rained down on Dubrovnik in 1991, the fact that UNESCO had declared "the pearl of the Adriatic" a World Heritage Site did nothing to protect it. Dependent on international goodwill, UNESCO recognizes that when basic human rights are flagrantly violated, it's unrealistic to expect that cultural heritage will enjoy safeguards. Natural sites are equally at risk; hundreds of thousands of Rwandans fleeing war and genocide have taken refuge in and decimated Virunga National Park in the neighboring Congo in recent years.
"There's a very strong public awareness of world heritage," Bandarin says at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris, where he and 60 experts oversee the day-to-day management of the agency. "But there is no legal framework. The legal framework of our convention is based on state sovereignty. We have no power of sanction."
UNESCO requires periodic reporting by national governments on the maintenance of heritage sites, and sends inspection missions to review reports that a site may be in peril. The agency conducted 167 such missions last year alone. Some 36 sites are currently on the endangered list, threatened by ills such as war, looting, natural disaster, pollution, deforestation, mass tourism, or uncontrolled development.