Around the World

Conflict, Natural Disasters, Tourism Threaten UNESCO World Heritage Sites

It's a list as varied as the sites it contains: the Statue of Liberty, Angkor in Cambodia, the city of Verona in Italy.

These and hundreds of other sites make up the World Heritage List, the most notable cultural, natural and historic landmarks around the world. UNESCO -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- carefully selects the properties and they are protected by the 40-year-old World Heritage Convention, ratified by 190 countries.

But this cultural and historic legacy shared by the world is under threat. Of the 962 sites, 38 are listed as "in danger," under siege by pollution, natural disasters, uncontrolled urbanization, unchecked tourism or armed conflict.

Take, for example, what happened in Syria just a few weeks ago. Amid intense fighting, a fire destroyed hundreds of shops in the vast medieval souk, or marketplace, in Aleppo, Syria's largest city. It's yet another casualty in the uprising that began in March 2011 and has claimed more than 30,000 lives. The souk was located in the old city of Aleppo, a World Heritage site, one of six in Syria. Four others had already been damaged: the Crac des Chevaliers castle, the old city of Damascus, the ancient villages of Northern Syria and the ruins of Palmyra.

One of the most recent additions to the "in danger" list is Timbuktu. Located in Mali in West Africa, the site contains three large historic mosques, now threatened by desertification and rampant urbanization.

UNESCO monitors not only the "in danger" sites but also hundreds of others on the World Heritage List. The Great Barrier Reef along Australia's northeast coast is the largest coral reef ecosystem in the world. But it has lost more than half its coral over the last three decades.

And UNESCO's own work is now under threat. The United States last year cut off its funding, a contribution that made up 22 percent of the organization's budget. The cutoff was automatic. Congress passed laws in the early 1990s requiring that funds be withdrawn from any United Nations body in which Palestine was voted in as a full member.

This week, Christiane Amanpour discusses the cultural and historical importance of sites on the World Heritage List with Kishore Rao. He is the director of the organization's World Heritage Center.

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