Stopping the countdown to catastrophe for world heritage

Apathy towards our world heritage poses a greater risk to it than climate change, war and conflict, bad planning or natural disasters.

National Trust images/Joe Cornish

Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland. One of the World Heritage Sites that the National Trust looks after. ©National Trust images/Joe Cornish


Today is World Heritage Day. Established by UNESCO in 1983 this yearly celebration of the world’s built cultural heritage aims to raise public awareness about the diversity and vulnerability of the world’s built monuments and heritage sites and the efforts required to protect and conserve them.

But today’s celebrations come with a stark warning about the future. The International National Trusts Organisation (INTO) have released a report on the current state of global heritage.  It’s based on a recent survey of the 66 INTO member states which highlighted five primary threats to our global heritage. In her first major speech as Chair of INTO, Dame Fiona Reynolds today said that whilst she expected those responses to include climate change, war and conflict, bad planning and development, the one resounding and clear answer from members was actually apathy on behalf of both governments and people.

Today Dame Fiona called for UNESCO, WWF and others to join with INTO to commit to a 2025 strategy that will both highlight the benefits of a thriving heritage sector and look at innovative ways to help countries and territories tackle threats on the ground.

“The danger is clear. Unless we act and work towards significantly changing public and official attitudes to heritage, then by 2025, largely through neglect and apathy, we risk letting a large proportion of our built and natural heritage disappear.” Dame Fiona Reynolds.

In this blog we take a look at the five key threats to global heritage outlined in the report.

 Planning and development

“Many national trusts find themselves fighting development pressures when the appeal of short-term economic gain is set against the longer-term benefits of a high quality cultural and natural environment” (The State of Global Heritage 2016). Examples cited in INTO’s report from Yangon in Myanmar, China and Jersey give a flavour of patterns replicated all around the world. Each case study reveals that the key to successfully moving forward is in understanding the many benefits heritage brings to places. Sharing knowledge, building capacity and skills, and engaging local communities is crucial in considering how historic places can balance tourism, economic growth and environmental issues for the sustainable management of historic environments.

Climate change and natural disasters

Earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters impact heritage sites all around the world, every year. The conservation of our built, cultural and natural heritage in the face of these threats depends on global co-operation, funding, expertise and the application of appropriate strategies for each place. INTO’s report shows how Bermuda and Indonesia have adapted to manage the threat of climate change to protect their heritage. These tactics range from working with nature on initiatives to safeguard the natural environment such as protecting beaches and dunes from development in order to allow them space to adapt and retreat, to training programmes in vulnerable areas on early warning systems and the recovery of cultural heritage.

War and conflict

War, looting and iconoclasm can wreak havoc on both cultural and natural heritage. Whilst few INTO member organisations have direct experience of these terrible conflicts, they lead to a redoubling of efforts to strengthen ties between communities and culture around the world. The destruction of cultural heritage doesn’t just happen in war zones, “over the ages, all nations have been tempted to rewrite history but the identity, memory and diversity embodied in our shared heritage and showcased by our national trusts reminds us of who we are and where we come from”. (The State of Global Heritage 2016).

“The protection of irreplaceable heritage cannot be set against the human tragedies but it is important to continue to raise awareness and to maintain our commitment to supporting those who seek to protect these sites, often putting their own lives in danger”.  The State Of Global Heritage 2016, INTO.

Roman fort of Ras Al-margeb, Iraq. Joris Kila, 2011. One of six destroyed mobile radar units at Ras Al-margeb with the Roman Fort undamaged except for minimal shrapnel scaring in the background.

Roman fort of Ras Al-margeb, Iraq. Joris Kila, 2011. One of six destroyed mobile radar units at Ras Al-margeb with the Roman fort undamaged except for minimal shrapnel scaring in the background.

Insufficient funding

Here in the UK the effects of spending cuts on regional heritage have been well documented.  Just last week a new report from the Arts Council Funding Arts and Culture in an Age of Austerity found a 17% drop in cultural spending by Councils since 2010 and highlights that one in five regional museums has either closed or plans to close.  With increasing calls upon local government and international funds, heritage funding can lose out. The challenge is a difficult one to overcome.  INTO’s report highlights how new models of local ownership and operation, supported by either government or large NGOs, can prove effective.  INTO has facilitated the sharing of experience of both funding models and fundraising strategies with hopeful results across the world, but the challenge remains.

State of UK Public Parks, Heritage Lottery Fund, 2014. ©Greenspace Information for Greater London

State of UK Public Parks, Heritage Lottery Fund, 2014. ©Greenspace Information for Greater London

Public awareness and attitudes towards the value of heritage

INTO’s member organisations agreed that lack of understanding of the holistic value of the world’s heritage assets was their number one concern.  It’s not that inappropriate development, war and conflict, funding issues and natural disasters aren’t the main threats to our global heritage, but more that people’s low awareness of the importance of heritage can be both a root cause of some of those threats and a chief stumbling block to progress.  “Without strong awareness a perceived apathy will be mirrored by the low position of conservation on a government’s priorities and consequently lower levels of funding and support” (The State of Global Heritage 2016).  Heritage needs to feel relevant and inspiring for people.  INTO members around the world share a belief that this is best achieved at a community level, and especially by engaging young people through education and heritage experiences.

“Beauty, identity, cultural heritage, nature, landscapes – these are the things that make us human…The more people share these values, the more chance there is that protecting our heritage will become integral to our global society’s future”.  Dame Fiona Reynolds.

Read the full report here (PDF).

 Want to know more about the International National Trusts Organisation?

 INTO is the umbrella body for the family of National Trusts and similar organisations around the world that come together to share experience and expertise, to grow the capacity of existing Trusts and establish new ones in countries where they don’t currently exist, and to act as a global voice on international heritage matters.

Since the establishment of the first ‘National Trust’ in 1895, the movement has grown to include a range of countries and INTO now has sixty six members from Australia to Zimbabwe.  Each is different, but each faces similar challenges and opportunities: increased pressure on land and landscapes, economic volatility and remaining relevant in an ever changing society.

The overarching mission of INTO is to promote the conservation and enhancement of the cultural and natural heritage of all nations for the benefit of the people of the world.

Find out more on the website


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