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Conservationists Call for Protection of Endangered Heritage Sites in Africa

  • Alan Boswell

Representatives from around Africa gather in Nairobi this week to seek new ways of protecting World Heritage Sites threatened by conflict and political instability on the continent. Africa is host to the largest number of sites named as endangered by the United Nations.

The list of World Heritage Sites in danger includes 13 African sites spread among eight countries.

Delegates from 15 countries as well as global conservation groups and the U.N. World Heritage Center are attending the seminar organized by the African World Heritage Fund.

The director of historic sites for the National Museums of Kenya, Mzalendo Kibunjia, says Africa is wasting away some of its gifts to the rest of the world by failing to protect these sites.

"If you take the world heritage lists of about 900 sites, out of that, sites that we call 'World Heritage Sites in Danger,' about half of those sites are in Africa," said Kibunjia. "So we are saying, 'Yes, we have these jewels of the world, but unfortunately no one is coming because these sites are in conflict areas. How do we try to correct this situation?'"

The African Heritage Fund's director, Webber Ndoro, says that the number of sites in danger is actually greater than the 13 listed by the United Nations because that list does not contain a number of sites endangered indirectly through political negligence and instability.

"We are also looking at post-conflict [areas], particularly those countries where the political upheaval have had a serious impact on the management of World Heritage Sites. For example, we are looking at a place like Zimbabwe, with sites like Victoria Falls which have been affected by the political problems for the past ten years. And this has led to a decline in tourism but also to neglect in the management of the site," said Ndoro.

World Heritage Sites are picked upon the basis of their cultural or natural importance to humanity. The vast majority of the sites worldwide are chosen for cultural significance, but most of the endangered sites in Africa are natural landmarks.

Sites within conflict areas are protected under a 1954 Hague convention, but most of the continent's conflicts involve rebel groups that pay little attention to international law.

Kibunjia says one of the goals of the Nairobi meeting is to push for site conservation experts to bring the issue of endangered heritage sites to the attention of the main political players in conflict areas.

"We are trying to find, who are these people that we have never talked about," said Kibunjia. "Maybe heritage experts only talk to themselves and they never saw the importance of attending peace meetings. So we want to involve the international community, we want to involve mediators, and tell them the importance of taking care of heritage. "

Five of the African heritage sites classified as being in danger are natural parks located in the Democratic Republic of Congo.