Protecting earth's treasures

World Heritage Convention needs funds to fulfill its preservation goal

The recent killing of eight tourists and four park rangers in Uganda's Bwindi National Park by marauding rebels was a terrible tragedy for the victims and their families. Unhappily, the tragedy may be compounded if it weakens Uganda's efforts to protect a global treasure.

Bwindi National Park is a World Heritage site, designated by the United Nations under a convention that provides recognition and assistance to some of the world's most important natural and cultural properties.

The simple concept behind the World Heritage Convention is that the globe's truly special places - those that symbolize the greatest works of nature and human endeavor - should be protected for all time by those who steward them.

Befitting this universal goal, 156 nations have ratified the convention, almost more than any other international agreement. Among nearly 600 World Heritage sites are Tanzania's Serengeti Plain, Australia's Great Barrier Reef, and India's Taj Mahal. US sites include Yellowstone, the Everglades, and the Statue of Liberty.

Bwindi National Park has one of the richest animal and plant communities in East Africa, including more than 336 species of birds, 120 species of mammals, and 200 species of trees. Bwindi is most famous for its 300 mountain gorillas, nearly half the world population of this critically endangered primate. Until the attack, Bwindi's gorillas anchored an innovative conservation plan. Thousands of tourists were traveling to Uganda to see the gorillas - and paying for the privilege. The Ugandan government returned a share of tourist revenue to local communities and used much of the rest to fund anti-poaching patrols and other park activities.

The recent killings caused these funds to evaporate, and with them went a vital conservation resource. The human pressures on Bwindi are intense as a growing population searches for more land to cultivate, more trees for firewood, and more minerals for export. If the park cannot generate income, its survival is threatened.

Money is urgently needed to fill the void while Uganda works to make Bwindi safe again for visitors. This is where the World Heritage Convention comes in.

The convention created a fund to help poorer countries protect listed sites and respond to emergency situations. Sadly, the fund has scant resources to fulfill its objectives.

The US should take the lead in strengthening the capacity of the World Heritage Convention both to aid threatened sites and to assist nations in nominating new and deserving ones.

The convention, after all, was largely a result of American initiative, negotiated by the Nixon administration during the centennial of Yellowstone in 1972. The US was the first country to sign the convention, and the Senate ratified it 95 to 0.

Unfortunately, a new bill in Congress would weaken US participation rather than strengthen it. The bill mistakenly asserts that the World Heritage Convention threatens US interests and even our sovereignty because it supposedly allows the UN to dictate domestic land management practices and encourages unwarranted land-use restrictions.

Behind this bill is an unfounded fear of international organizations taking over public lands and even hovering ominously in black helicopters over US territory. Yet this sentiment is no joke - it explains in part some of the unjustified concerns that have led Congress to withhold payment of our more than $1 billion debt to the UN.

In fact, countries voluntarily nominate sites within their own borders for World Heritage consideration. While the convention encourages governments to keep their promises to protect listed sites, nations maintain total control over land-use decisions.

A World Heritage designation imposes no new restrictions. Nominated sites must already be protected under law and are usually national parks or monuments. As it turns out, World Heritage sites often experience an economic benefit through increased tourism.

Viewing the World Heritage Convention as a threat is a terribly shortsighted approach for a nation whose protected-areas system is the envy of the world. Instead, we should see it as an opportunity to use our wealth - of knowledge, capacity, and money - to help other nations protect a network of great places that showcase the remarkable diversity of nature and culture.

Bwindi National Park is one such place. We must not let the terrorists who killed 12 innocent people there succeed also in destroying this natural wonder.

* Timothy E. Wirth is president of the United Nations Foundation, in Washington.

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