WWF: World Heritage Committee fails to protect threatened natural sites in Europe

Posted on July, 14 2016

Yet governments failed to take bold action to protect them.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee today expressed concern over three sites facing severe pressures from harmful industrial activities, but failed to take bold action to protect them.

At the meeting, WWF objected to a sharp logging increase in the Polish portion of Bialowieza Forest World Heritage site, which also spans part of Belarus. The forest is one of Europe’s oldest, and is home to the most wild European bison, as well as lynxes and wolves. The government of Poland has argued that logging is necessary in order to combat a bark beetle infestation, a claim Polish scientists reject.

“The logging plan triples the sustainable limits agreed by Poland and the European Commission in 2012, and now the commission is examining whether the plan is a violation of EU law,” said WWF-Poland’s Dariusz Gatkowski.

“We are very disappointed that the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has not requested that the 2012 logging limits be upheld. The natural value of this precious site may suffer as a result of today’s decision.”

A month ago, the European Commission had announced its decision to begin an infringement procedure against Poland due to the government's plans to increase logging in the Białowieża Forest. This decision, which was the first step of a procedure that could result in Poland being taken to the European Court of Justice for breaching the EU Habitats Directive, came in response to a complaint filed by a coalition of seven NGOs, including ClientEarth, WWF, Greenpeace and Birdlife.

The committee adopted a stronger decision on Russia’s Western Caucasus, cautioning that construction of large scale infrastructure could cause the site to be inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger. WWF is concerned that protections promised by Russia as part of its 2014 Sochi Olympic bid are being weakened to make way for expanding ski facilities.

The committee warned that recent legislative changes could have negative impacts on the reintroduction of endangered Persian leopards to the area. The first three cubs are set to be released from a specialized breeding and training centre tomorrow. 

“We had hoped to release these very special leopards into a secure environment. Instead they will enter the unknown,” said Igor Chestin, CEO of WWF-Russia. “The future of Western Caucasus is hanging in the balance, but it is not too late to restore a positive natural legacy for the Sochi games. The International Olympic
Committee should insist that promises made then are kept now.”

The World Heritage committee also considered another site at risk from both encroachment by ski facilities and increased industrial-scale logging. Nearly 60 per cent of Bulgaria’s Pirin National Park could be opened to logging through a government plan.

“Pirin is one of Europe’s few untouched treasures. It has dramatic mountain landscapes, pristine glacial lakes, trees over 1,000 years old, and is home to bears and wolves,” said Lubomir Kostadinov of WWF-Bulgaria, who addressed the committee, which represents 192 countries that are party to the World Heritage Convention.

“The international community has made a mistake to not to impose sufficient environmental safeguards or international oversight of this threatened World Heritage site. Today’s decision places Pirin National Park in peril.”

Now more than ever the world needs to rally around these places that have outstanding universal value for people. WWF remains ready to work with governments and businesses to save our shared heritage.
The Bialowieza World Heritage site is Europe's oldest remaining forest filled with ancient trees.
© WWF-Poland / Adam Lawnik
Protections have been weakened for Russian natural areas like the Western Caucasus.
© WWF-Russia / Sergey Trepet
The construction of Bansko Ski Zone, Pirin National Park, Bulgaria
The construction of Bansko Ski Zone, Pirin National Park, Bulgaria
© Petko Tsvetkov