Controversial China bid for heritage status in Tibet contravenes UNESCO values

Krakow – The UNESCO World Heritage Committee, meeting in Krakow this week, risks contravening its own guidelines tomorrow (July 7) if it approves without question a controversial nomination by the Chinese government for a vast area of Tibet known as Hoh Xil.

This is despite China’s claim to the Committee that the nomination is welcomed and that it complies with the Committee’s Operational Guidelines, according to a letter seen by the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) in Krakow. The letter from the Secretary-General of the Chinese UNESCO Commission also refers to “inaccurate and indefensible” information about the nomination, which is likely to refer to ICT’s report on Hoh Xil (“Achen Gangyap” in Tibetan), as well as evidence from academics on the bid before the Committee for decision tomorrow.

The International Campaign for Tibet has documented how the Hoh Xil nature reserve on the Tibetan plateau, nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status, is in the middle of three major nature reserves that increasingly exclude normal Tibetan land use such as nomadic herding, situate the state as the sole agency of control, and encourage mass tourism.

But both UNESCO World Heritage and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which recommended the inscription goes ahead, have clear guidelines on protecting the rights of local and indigenous people and preservation of their culture. The nomination would contravene fundamental principles and values including the concepts of “FPIC” (free, prior and informed consent) and UNDRIP (UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples)[1] which are recognised in UNESCO Operational Guidelines.[2]

The inscription of Hoh Xil without further detailed assessment would effectively signify endorsement from the international cultural heritage body of China’s ambitious policies including the displacement of Tibetan nomads from their land and the criminalization of traditionally productive and sustainable activities such as pastoralism and gathering medicinal herbs. The involvement of Tibetans – and nomads in particular – as stewards is essential to sustaining the wildlife, the long-term health of the ecosystems, and the water resources that China and Asia depend upon.

An expert mission for UNESCO identified serious concerns about China’s nomination, including the dangers to wildlife presented by an engineering corridor that runs through the area. But in a conclusion that appears inconsistent with such warnings, the scientific mission from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature concluded that the nomination should still be approved at the 41st World Heritage Committee on Friday (July 7).

Matteo Mecacci, President of ICT, said: “While of course we fully support the aim of protecting biodiversity in the UNESCO application, UNESCO Committee members have a serious decision before them – they could decide to help ensure the survival of the nomadic traditions of one of the richest spiritual cultures in the world. Or they could risk giving UNESCO’s approval and brand equity to a nomination that raises serious concern and questions – a precedent that has been set before with detrimental results. For instance in the ‘Three Parallel Rivers’ protected area of Yunnan, given World Heritage status in 2002, the actual rivers were excluded from the defined protected area, which allowed China to proceed with hydro dam construction, power grid construction and other development – resulting in a decline in wildlife population and difficulties for the local Tibetan population.

“Tibetan nomads should be honored for preserving the natural and cultural heritage of their homeland to a degree that has allowed it to be considered as World Heritage in the first place. Making the right decision on Hoh Xil could set a precedent for genuine protection of this landscape, regarded as sacred by Tibetan Buddhists, aligning both cultural and natural protection, with safeguards in place to ensure that access for Tibetan nomads is fundamental.”

A resolution passed by the International Civil Society Forum on World Heritage at Risk about China and Hoh Xil on July 1, 2017 said, “The World Heritage Committee should defer the nomination pending a comprehensive and detailed assessment of traditional land use, involving all stakeholders as well as UNESCO experts. The traditional nomadic life of Tibetans must be respected and guaranteed in the nomination document as a precondition for the inscription, including a land use plan that establishes the right of Tibetans to graze their animals and to sustainably harvest natural produce such as herbs, berries etc. for their personal consumption.”

The resolution further said, “IUCN details a number of sacred and cultural sites in the area. A mapping and description of such sites should also be undertaken and included in the nomination document. Protection of these sites should be guaranteed by law and upheld in practice, and free access to the sites as well as the freedom to practice their religion must be granted to the Tibetans at these sites. On the basis of their description, ICOMOS should submit to the WH Committee an assessment and recommendation on whether they also merit an inscription of Hoh Xil, under cultural criteria.”

ICT has put forward detailed recommendations in a report published on June 30, including:

  • There should be more detailed examination of the nomination prior to inscription. UNESCO Operational Guidelines specify mechanisms for the deferral of nominations (pending more in-depth assessment and study) and referral (meaning that the Committee decides to refer back to the State Party for further information, according to Articles 159 and 160 of the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention).
  • The traditional nomadic life of Tibetans must be respected and guaranteed as a precondition for the inscription, with a land use plan that establishes the right of Tibetans to graze their animals.
  • The UNESCO evaluation details a number of sacred and cultural sites in the area while the property is defined only as ‘natural’ landscape. A detailed mapping of such sites should be carried out in order to establish whether more comprehensive protection is required, recognizing Hoh Xil for its cultural as well as natural significance, which would be inconsistent with removing Tibetans from the land and excluding them from the decision-making process.

An ICT team including a Tibetan scholar who has researched grasslands policy in the PRC has presented its findings to the International Civil Society Forum on World Heritage at Risk in Krakow, Poland, and is attending the World Heritage Committee.


Footnotes:
[1] http://www.unesco.org/new/en/indigenous-peoples/related-info/undrip/

[2] UNESCO states that it “seeks to support [indigenous peoples] in addressing the multiple challenges they face, while acknowledging their significant role in sustaining the diversity of the world’s cultural and biological landscape” (http://www.unesco.org/new/en/indigenous-peoples/). The importance of UNDRIP is also referenced in the page margin on page 17, paragraph 40, of UNESCO’s Operational Guidelines, which are highly relevant to the proceedings of the Committee in Krakow this week. Similarly, Article 27 of the World Heritage Convention specifies that increasing “participation of local and national populations in the protection and presentation of heritage” is an important element of ‘community’ as one of four strategic objectives towards ‘community’.