Political dynamics matter for governance of World Heritage ecosystems

World Heritage sure works for nature. But why do some threatened ecosystems continue to evade the In Danger list? Across 238 ecosystems, we examine why some governments favor rhetoric over compliance, and how these political dynamics shape ecosystem sustainability.
Political dynamics matter for governance of World Heritage ecosystems

In our latest study we analyse the political dynamics shaping World Heritage in Danger listings [1]. An In Danger listing is an intervention aimed at bringing global attention to the natural or human causes of threats to ecosystems. It can encourage emergency conservation action and mobilise international assistance. However while it is universally acknowledged that such interventions have become increasingly politicized [2], little is known about what this politicization entails, and what to do about it.

Politicization is a complex research subject because In Danger listings are a relational and fluid exercise over many years and multiple scales. Our study was therefore, by necessity, a mixed-methods study of a multi-scale phenomenon [3,4]. We combined multi-scale quantitative economic, ecosystem threat and governance data with qualitative data: UNESCO and national governmental records, and in-depth confidential interviews.

We weren’t striving to explain phenomena at a specific level or at a particular point in time; rather the unit of analysis was the multi-scale relationship between the nation-state and UNESCO in governing individual sites over time. To scrutinize this multi-scale relationship and its political economy, we therefore included variables at the UNESCO level, national level and site level. 

First, we compiled a database of 238 World Heritage areas that were certified for their natural or mixed (natural and cultural) significance. We were lucky to have access to a great data set, which allowed us to process trace World Heritage listings in 102 countries over 47 years (1972-2019).  The main data source was a publicly accessible, searchable database maintained by the World Heritage Center in Paris. (Check it out at http://whc.unesco.org/en/documents/). 

Then, we combined World Heritage in Danger certification patterns with site threat records and rates of UNESCO threat reporting. From this we developed a more advanced classification of site certification than UNESCO’s own system. We found 41 sites that were never certified as In Danger, despite reported threats that are equal to or higher in intensity than those that were certified. We termed this new category ‘technically in danger’—distinct from sites that were either never in danger or that were both technically and formally in danger at least once (which we termed ‘never in danger’ and ‘WH in Danger’, respectively).

Of the 41 sites with the new status ‘technically in danger', we found 27 were proposed for an In Danger listing more than once by the World Heritage Committee—but never made it to the list.

We then examined the political strategies used by different national governments to respond to or to avoid In Danger listings. Sites that demonstrated regular shared monitoring and reporting and full compliance with shared World Heritage norms were coded as ‘compliance’. Those that demonstrated ongoing dialogue and extra technical and financial UNESCO assistance towards co-developed management plans were coded as ‘negotiation’. Sites that engaged in voluntary requests for World Heritage in Danger listing and removal were coded as ‘appropriation’. Those that opposed and avoided proposed World Heritage in Danger listings through partial compliance and symbolic commitments were coded as ‘rhetorical adoption’.

Sites that demonstrated low visibility to UNESCO, or indifference by the responsible government despite reported threats above listed World Heritage in Danger levels, were coded as ‘passive resistance’.

Finally, we examined data on national governance quality, economic complexity and key stakeholder perspectives to understand the political dynamics and ecosystem impacts of different responses. Here we used data from the IMF, the World Bank, the MIT Complexity Index and our own in-depth interviews with World Heritage experts.

Our co-authors included an international team of experts in human geography, political science, development studies and ecology. The data set allowed the team to connect and test new ideas across theories of international relations and social-ecological systems [5-9]. Underpinning the analytical work was years of individual experience working with environmental policymakers and bureaucrats. We therefore explicitly set out to develop policy-relevant analyses.

Our results challenge the assumption that poor governance only happens in less technologically advanced economies. We show rich countries have just as strong incentives to avoid international intervention and oversight—the influence of powerful industries in blocking environmental governance is prevalent in many regions and systems. We also provide examples of how concerned stakeholders can engage countervailing strategies to harness these political dynamics, including to overcome the problem of regulatory capture.

Given the global investment in environmental protection over the past 50 years, it is essential that future research continues to uncover political dynamics—both productive and counterproductive—to safeguard all ecosystems. We hope this study and the data set will stimulate further research and practice in this area.

The full article, Political dynamics and governance of World Heritage ecosystems, is accessible via https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-020-0568-8 (free view: https://rdcu.be/b5JCI ).


[1] Morrison T.H., Adger N., Brown K., Hettiarachchi M., Huchery C., Lemos M.C & Hughes T.P. Political dynamics and governance of World Heritage ecosystemsNature Sustainabilityhttps://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0568-8, (2020) (free view: https://rdcu.be/b5JCI ).

[2] Bertacchini, E. et al. The politicization of UNESCO World Heritage decision making. Public Choice 167, 95–129 (2016)

[3] Morrison, T.H. Evolving polycentric governance of the Great Barrier ReefProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114, E3013-E3021 (2017).

[4] Morrison, T.H. et al. Advancing coral reef governance into the Anthropocene. One Earth 2, 64–74 (2020).

[5] Kates, R.W. & Clark, W.C. Environmental surprise: expecting the unexpected? Environment 38, 6–34 (1996).

[6] Kroner, R.E.G. et al. The uncertain future of protected lands and waters. Science 364, 881–886 (2019).

[7] Zimmermann, L. Same same or different? Norm diffusion between resistance, compliance, and localization in post-conflict states. International Studies Perspectives 17, 98–115 (2016).

[8] Hartmann, D. et al. Linking economic complexity, institutions, and income inequality. World Development 93, 75–93 (2017).

[9] Morrison, T.H. et al. The black box of power in polycentric environmental governance. Global Environmental Change 57, 101934 (2019).

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