World Heritage supports millions, but threatened worldwide - at least 12 sites protected by EU laws at risk

Posted on April, 06 2016

114 of the planet's most precious places are at risk, WWF finds. In the EU, at least 12 sites protected also by EU laws, are at risk

Nearly half of all natural World Heritage sites are threatened by harmful industrial activities, according to a new WWF report. These sites provide vital services to people and the environment, but are at risk worldwide from activities including oil and gas exploration, mining and illegal logging.

The report, produced for WWF by Dalberg Global Development Advisors, shows how natural World Heritage sites contribute to economic and social development through the protection of the environment, but also details global failures to protect these areas of outstanding universal value.
According to the study, 114 natural and mixed World Heritage sites out of 229 either have oil, gas or mining concessions overlapping them or are under threat from at least one other harmful industrial activity. At least 12 of them are in the European Union and are protected also by the EU Nature Directives.

“World Heritage sites should receive the highest levels of protection, yet we are often unable to safeguard even this important fraction of the Earth’s surface,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International. “We all agree that these are some of the most valuable and unique places on the planet, now we need to work together to let these sites provide for the well-being of people and nature.”
More than eleven million people – greater than the population of Portugal – depend on World Heritage sites for food, water, shelter and medicine, and could be negatively affected by the impacts of harmful industrial activities conducted at large-scale.
The report shows that within the EU at least 12 sites are currently highly threatened by oil and gas concessions, mines, unsustainable water use, and transport infrastructures or deforestation. Among the sites are: the largest surviving area of laurel forest of Laurisilva of Madeira (Portugal); the Danube Delta; the world famous Plitvice Lakes (Croatia); the rich biodiversity of the Wadden Sea; the Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians; the unique wetland of Doñana in Spain; Sweden’s Laponian area; Bulgaria’s Pirin National Park; and some of Italy’s most beautiful sites such as the Venice Lagoon.

“Europe is home to natural areas of outstanding value to the whole humanity. They are protected by European laws like the EU Birds and Habitats Directives that need to be fully respected and implemented to stop damaging industrial activities, like oil and gas drilling, deforestation or unsustainable agriculture. These unique natural sites and the rest of Europe’s protected nature belong to all of us and if sustainably and properly managed can deliver enormous benefits to local communities and businesses.” said Geneviève Pons, Director at WWF European Policy Office.
World Heritage sites could play a key role for these people and communities worldwide in achieving the global sustainable development goals agreed last year by UN member states. According to the report, 90 per cent of natural World Heritage sites provide jobs and benefits that extend far beyond their boundaries.
“We need to wake up to the fact that people don’t just protect these sites, these sites protect people. Governments and businesses need to prioritize long-term value over short-term revenue and respect the status of these incredible places,” said Lambertini. “We need to turn away from harmful industrial activities and focus on sustainable alternatives that enhance World Heritage sites, their values and the benefits they provide.
For more information, please contact:
Stefania Campogianni, WWF European Policy Office,, +32 499 539736
Michael Storey WWF International,, +41 79 22 364 9550
Threatened World Heritage Sites within the European Union:
There are currently at least 12 UNESCO natural sites highly threatened by harmful industrial activities. All of them are also protected by the EU Birds and Habitats Directives (EU Nature Directives) and are part of the EU Natura 2000 network of protected areas (See the full list here). The current threat is a signal of lack of proper implementation of the existing legislation. WWF is currently campaigning to ensure that the current laws are maintained and effectively implemented against harmful industrial activities, like unsustainable agriculture, energy and transport infrastructures (#NatureAlert).
  • Laurisilva of Madeira (Portugal):  an outstanding relict of a previously widespread laurel forest type. It is the largest surviving area of laurel forest and is believed to be 90% primary forest. It includes 4 Natura 2000 habitats with two of them classified as priority. Main threat: transport infrastructures.
  • The Danube Delta (Romania): the largest and best preserved of Europe's deltas. The Danube Delta hosts over 300 species of birds as well as 45 freshwater fish species in its numerous lakes and marshes. It is the largest Natura 2000 site in Romania. Main threat: oil/gas concessions and transport infrastructures.
  • Plitvice Lakes National Park (Croatia): the oldest national parks in Southeast Europe and the largest national park in Croatia. Main Threat: unsustainable water use and tourism
  • Wadden Sea (Denmark, Germany, Netherlands): internationally known as a resting place for millions of migratory birds, with more than 10 million of them passing through it twice a year. Main threat: oil/gas concessions and transport infrastructures.
  • Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and the Ancient Beech Forests of Germany (Germany, Slovakia, Ukraine): represent examples of on-going post-glacial biological and ecological evolution of terrestrial ecosystems. Main threat: oil/gas concessions.
  • Doñana National Park (Spain): one of Europe’s most valuable wetlands, it is notable for the great diversity of its biotopes, especially lagoons, marshlands, fixed and mobile dunes, scrub woodland and maquis. It is home to five threatened bird species.
    Main threats: Dams and unsustainable water use and mining
  • Laponian Area (Sweden): occupied continuously by the Saami people since prehistoric times, it is one of the last and unquestionably largest and best preserved examples of an area of transhumance, involving summer grazing by large reindeer herds. Main threat: mines and mining concessions
  • Pirin National Park (Bulgaria): the site comprises diverse limestone mountain landscapes with glacial lakes, waterfalls, caves and predominantly coniferous forests. It is part of Natura 2000 network for its unique natural resources such as 120 year old pine forests. Main threat: logging and unsustainable infrastructure, like a sky resort.
  • Srebarna Nature Reserve (Bulgaria): a freshwater lake adjacent to the Danube and extending over 600 ha. It is the breeding ground of almost 100 species of birds, many of which are rare or endangered. Among the most interesting bird species are the Dalmatian pelican, great egret, night heron, purple heron, glossy ibis and white spoonbill. The reserve is also included in two Natura 2000 sites. Main Threat: dams and unsustainable water use
  • Aeolian Islands (Italy): an outstanding record of volcanic island-building and destruction, and ongoing volcanic phenomena. Main threat: oil/gas concessions.
  • Po River Delta (Italy): the wide plains along the branches of the Po down to the Delta, dotted with the residences of the Ferrara Dukes and the reclaimed swamps nearby, are part of a unique cultural and natural landscape. Main threat: oil/gas concessions.
  • Venice Lagoon (Italy): The UNESCO World Heritage property comprises the city of Venice and its lagoon situated in the Veneto Region of Northeast Italy. In this lagoon covering 50,000 km², nature and history have been closely linked since the 5th century. Main threat: oil/gas concessions.
Ambergris caye, Belize, Central America
© Antonio Busiello/WWF-Guatemala
Dalberg finds that 114 natural World Heritage sites are under threat.
Donana UNESCO National Park in Spain is one of Europe's most valuable wetlands. The site is protected by EU Laws, but it is threatened by harmful industrial activities.
© / Jose B. Ruiz / WWF