Nearly one-third of the planet's natural World Heritage Sites are under threat from oil, gas, and mining exploration, a new report by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) published Thursday has found.
According to its new report—Safeguarding Outstanding Natural Value: The Role of Institutional Investors in Protecting Natural World Heritage Sites from Extractive Activity (pdf)—the WWF says an increasing number of sites designated natural treasures, including Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon in the U.S., and the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, are at risk from mineral and fossil fuel extraction.
Nearly 31 percent of all the natural sites are already threatened by extractive activity, whether through commercial mining or oil and gas operations or through deals between companies and host governments that are poised to bring such activity to the sites in the near future.
And when narrowing the lens, the numbers become bigger—like in Africa, where 61 percent of vulnerable sites are subject to some form of extractive activity.
That's a problem not just for environmental conservationists, but also for communities on the frontlines of the climate change fight. As WWF explains, extractive operations "can cause significant and permanent environmental damage both directly to landscape or water sources, and indirectly, by catalysing wide scale social and economic changes—especially in developing countries."
"We are going to the ends of the Earth in pursuit of more resources—resources, including minerals, oil and gas, that are becoming more difficult and more expensive to extract," said WWF-UK’s chief executive David Nussbaum. "Some of the world's most treasured places are threatened by destructive industrial activities that imperil the very values for which they have been granted the highest level of international recognition: outstanding natural value."
Among the sites included in the report is the Mesoamerican Reef, the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, which spreads throughout the Caribbean Sea to reach the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. But active oil wells in Mexico and awarded extraction contracts in Mexico and Belize threaten the reef's abundant biodiversity. And because reefs are particularly sensitive ecosystems, says WWF, extractive operations have the potential to cause "widespread environmental damage."
"We are going to the ends of the Earth in pursuit of more resources—resources, including minerals, oil and gas, that are becoming more difficult and more expensive to extract."
—David Nussbaum, WWF
Moreover, World Heritage Sites are often home to a number of endangered species, such as mountain gorillas, African elephants, snow leopards, whales, and marine turtles.
The WWF report, crafted with input from Aviva Investors and Investec Asset Management, argues that financial institutions have an important role to play in prioritizing conservation over profit. To that end, its authors urge investors to cut ties with extractive companies that threaten the world's most wondrous natural areas. "Some places are too valuable to risk," wrote Tim Badman, director of the IUCN's World Heritage program. The report "highlights the heightened business risks for both sectors of a failure to respect the world’s most important protected areas."
Furthermore, WWF also encouraged global governments to create "no-go" areas within certain heritage sites, which would "balance economic development with environmental goals."
"Protecting these iconic places is not only important in terms of their environmental worth; it is crucial for the livelihoods and future of the people who depend on them," Nussbaum said.