• International Processes and Initiatives

Indigenous World 2020: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Convention

The Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (“World Heritage Convention”) was adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO’s) General Conference in 1972. With 193 States Parties, it is one of the most widely ratified multilateral treaties today. Its main purpose is the identification and collective protection of cultural and natural heritage sites of “outstanding universal value” (OUV). The Convention embodies the idea that some places are so special and important that their protection is not only the responsibility of the States in which they are located, but also a duty of the international community as a whole.

The implementation of the Convention is governed by the World Heritage Committee (WHC), consisting of 21 States Parties. The WHC keeps a list of the sites it considers to be of OUV (“World Heritage List”) and monitors the conservation of these sites to ensure they are adequately protected and safeguarded. Sites can only be listed following a formal nomination by the State Party in whose territory they are situated, and are classified as either ‘natural’, ‘cultural’ or ‘mixed’ World Heritage sites.

A large number of World Heritage sites overlap with Indigenous Peoples’ territories. Although most of these are classified as purely ‘natural sites’, without recognition of Indigenous cultural aspects, there are also some sites that are listed for their Indigenous cultural values or interlinkages between nature and Indigenous culture.

The WHC is supported by a secretariat (the UNESCO World Heritage Centre) and three advisory bodies – International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) – which provide technical evaluations of World Heritage nominations and help monitor the state of conservation of World Heritage sites. An Indigenous proposal to establish a “World Heritage Indigenous Peoples Council of Experts” as an additional advisory body was rejected by the WHC in 2001.

 Human rights abuses by eco-guards at World Heritage sites: allegations against WWF

In March 2019, BuzzFeed News began publishing a series of articles drawing attention to a pattern of serious human rights abuses connected with conservation activities implemented or funded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) at national parks in Africa and Asia.[1] According to these articles, which have received broad international media coverage, WWF has for years financed and equipped anti-poaching forces accused of beating, torturing, sexually assaulting and murdering Indigenous people living near the national parks they patrol. What was not stressed in the media is that almost all of the implicated parks are World Heritage sites: Salonga National Park (Democratic Republic of the Congo  [DRC]), Lobéké National Park (Cameroon), Chitwan National Park (Nepal), Kaziranga National Park (India) and Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve (WH buffer zone, Central African Republic).[2] According to BuzzFeed, internal WWF reports warned about the abuses for years, but were kept under wraps by the charity’s leadership.[3] In response to the allegations, WWF has commissioned an independent review led by former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.[4]

43rd Session of the WHC, Baku, June/July 2019

The WHC’s 43rd session in Baku, Azerbaijan, was highly significant for Indigenous Peoples as several important provisions on Indigenous Peoples were added to the World Heritage Convention’s Operational Guidelines and the WHC for the first time integrated references to human rights into the guidelines. Also remarkable was the exceptionally high number of Indigenous participants, which was due to several factors: the WHC’s consideration of two nominations of Indigenous cultural landscapes (Budj Bim and Writing-on-Stone); two side events focusing on Indigenous Peoples, organised by the World Heritage Centre and the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on World Heritage (IIPFWH);[5] and a special grant from the Government of Canada supporting the participation of members of the IIPFWH.

Amendments to the Operational Guidelines

In endorsing the 2015 World Heritage Sustainable Development Policy (WH-SDP), which encourages States to adopt a human rights-based approach and includes a special section on Indigenous Peoples, the WHC requested the World Heritage Centre to elaborate proposals for changes to the Operational Guidelines to translate the principles of the policy into actual operational procedures. Consequently, in May 2019, the centre submitted a set of proposed amendments to the WHC for consideration at its Baku session.[6] In developing the proposals relating to Indigenous Peoples, the centre drew on the WH-SDP, the UNESCO policy on Indigenous Peoples (2017), and the recommendations of the International Expert Workshop on the World Heritage Convention and Indigenous Peoples (Copenhagen, 2012).

After discussing the proposals in a working group during the Baku session, the WHC made a range of amendments to the Operational Guidelines, some of which are highly significant for Indigenous Peoples and the protection of their rights. For instance, because of the amendments, the Guidelines now:

  • require States to obtain Indigenous Peoples’ free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) before including sites affecting the lands, territories or resources of Indigenous Peoples on their “Tentative Lists” of potential World Heritage sites (the first step towards World Heritage listing);
  • make it mandatory for States to demonstrate the FPIC of Indigenous Peoples when they nominate sites for World Heritage listing (previously this was only recommended practice);
  • encourage States to adopt a human rights-based approach in the identification, nomination, management and protection processes of World Heritage sites;
  • encourage States to mainstream international human rights standards and the principles of the UNESCO policy on Indigenous Peoples into their activities related to World Heritage;
  • state that States should closely collaborate with Indigenous Peoples in managing World Heritage sites by developing equitable governance arrangements, collaborative management systems and redress mechanisms;
  • recognise that in natural sites, biological diversity and cultural diversity can be closely linked and interdependent.[7]

Noteworthy decisions on specific nominations

The WHC again considered several nominations affecting Indigenous Peoples’ territories, adding several Indigenous sites to the World Heritage List. The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape (Australia), located in the traditional Country of the Gunditjmara people in south-eastern Australia, was inscribed as a living cultural landscape in recognition of the significance of the complex aquaculture system developed by the Gunditjmara for trapping, storing and harvesting eel. The site is comprised wholly of lands owned or co-operatively managed by Aboriginal groups and the nomination was prepared by the traditional owners themselves.

Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi (Canada), a sacred landscape and rock art site in the northern Great Plains, was listed as a cultural landscape that provides exceptional testimony to the living cultural traditions of the Blackfoot people. The Statement of OUV notes that the Blackfoot “are fully participating in the management of Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai'pi”, and the nomination dossier contains a detailed description of Blackfoot engagement throughout the nomination process and a statement of support from the Chiefs of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

Paraty and Ilha Grande (Brazil), which comprises the historic centre of the colonial town of Paraty and four Atlantic Forest protected areas, was listed as a mixed (cultural/natural) site. The area includes several Indigenous and traditional communities (Guarani, Quilombola and Caiçara), whose continuing relationship with the Atlantic Forest landscape is recognised in the OUV Statement. However, although the OUV Statement states that “traditional communities have participated in the elaboration of the nomination and the management processes”, the nomination dossier contains no evidence of their FPIC. In inscribing the site, the WHC recommended that Brazil “strengthen participatory governance mechanisms to enshrine the principles of FPIC… in the management process”.[8]

The WHC also reconsidered the nomination of the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex (KKFC) (Thailand), which it had referred in 2015 and 2016 due to concerns over persistent human rights violations against the Karen communities in the KKFC, potential negative implications of World Heritage status for their livelihoods and Thailand’s lack of consultation with the Karen regarding the nomination. The 2016 referral decision asked Thailand to “achieve a consensus of support for the nomination… that is fully consistent with the principle of FPIC” before resubmitting the nomination.

Upon receipt of the resubmitted nomination, IUCN requested advice on the situation of the Karen from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The OHCHR responded with a joint communication from four UN human rights mandates[9] expressing serious concerns over alleged attacks against and renewed harassment of the Karen by the conservation authorities and Thailand’s continued lack of consultation with the Karen and failure to seek their FPIC. The communication also warns about “the negative impact that World Heritage status may have on the traditional livelihoods of the Karen, their exercise of land rights, and potential exposure to forced evictions”. It stresses that “adequate measures have not been taken to address these concerns between 2015 and… 2019”. IUCN therefore recommended that the nomination be deferred (rather than referred), as only a deferral would provide the necessary time to address the concerns, and suggested that Thailand be asked to engage directly with the OHCHR to resolve the human rights concerns.[10]

However, during the WHC’s debate in Baku, many committee members pressed for an immediate inscription as Thailand claimed it had enacted two new laws protecting the rights of local communities in conservation areas (National Parks Act; Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act). Thailand stated that these laws represented an “important paradigm shift” and ensured that the livelihoods of the Karen would be protected and that the Karen would be engaged in the conservation effort in accordance with the principle of FPIC.[11] Nevertheless, due to the insistence of some other committee members, the WHC decided on another referral, asking Thailand to “demonstrate that all concerns have been resolved, in full consultation with the local communities, in accordance with paragraph 123 of the Operational Guidelines [on Indigenous Peoples’ FPIC]”.[12]

Noteworthy decisions on the state of conservation of specific sites

The WHC examined the state of conservation of 166 World Heritage sites, including numerous sites located in Indigenous Peoples’ territories. Several of the decisions passed by the WHC in this context refer to the livelihoods and rights of Indigenous Peoples or their roles in site management and decision-making.

In a number of cases, the WHC called on the relevant States Parties to ensure respect for Indigenous Peoples’ rights or their involvement in decision-making processes. For instance, the WHC’s decision on the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve calls on Honduras to ensure the full involvement of Indigenous Peoples in a planned significant boundary modification of the site.[13] The decision on the Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area requests India to ensure meaningful involvement of Indigenous Peoples in the governance and management, including in the ongoing efforts to significantly enlarge the World Heritage area (planned inclusion of Khirganga National Park).[14] The decision on the Sangha Trinational (Cameroon, Central African Republic and Congo) urges States Parties to strengthen efforts to “better involve local communities and to recognise the rights and traditional livelihoods of the Indigenous Baka communities, as well as efforts to ensure the respect of human rights by park rangers”.[15] The decision on Kahuzi-Biega National Park encourages the DRC to continue actions supporting the autonomy of Batwa communities and the recognition of their rights and traditional means of subsistence.[16] The decision on the Kenya Lake System urges Kenya to continue its efforts to implement the Endorois ruling of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR),[17] and that on Wood Buffalo National Park commends Canada for its commitment to “fair, transparent and meaningful involvement of all legitimate stakeholders and rights-holders… in line with the UNESCO policy on engaging with Indigenous Peoples”.[18]

Several WHC decisions refer to ongoing or planned relocations of Indigenous communities from specific sites. For instance, that on the South China Karst refers to the relocation of the old Sani village of Wukeshu, which, after years of protest from the villagers, is being destroyed to make way for tourism construction.[19] The decision “notes with appreciation” the information provided by China that the relocation processes were carried out with the consent of the population concerned and requests China to “ensure that any such relocation programmes are in line with the 2015 WH-SDP and relevant international standards”.[20] Similarly, the decision on Wulingyuan Scenic Area requests China to ensure that any relocation programmes are consistent with the WH-SDP and ensure effective consultation, fair compensation, access to social benefits, and the preservation of cultural rights.[21] Wulingyuan is home to three different ethnic minority peoples, the Tujia, Miao and Bai, who have been subjected to several waves of “ecological resettlement” since the area was declared a natural World Heritage site in 1992.[22]

Another example is the decision on Salonga National Park (DRC), which requests the State Party:

to ensure that the resettlement procedure outside of the Park of the Yaelima communities is voluntary and in accordance with the policies of the Convention and the relevant international standards, including the principles of FPIC, fair compensation, access to social advantages and the preservation of cultural rights.[23]

Conservation organisations like the WWF have for years pressed for a removal of the Iyaelima from their traditional homelands within the park.[24] In 2018, the DRC informed the WHC that “the managers of the property, with support from the Wildlife Conservation Society, ha[d] begun a process for the voluntary relocation of the Yaelima communities outside the Park”; however, the DRC has, to date, provided no further information on this “voluntary resettlement”.[25]

Finally, the decision on the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) (Tanzania) requests the State Party to implement all the recommendations of a March 2019 UNESCO monitoring mission (including a recommendation to “continue to promote and encourage voluntary resettlement of communities… from within the property to outside by 2028”), and encourages Tanzania “to engage local communities… in exploring alternative livelihood solutions to its current voluntary resettlement scheme consistent with the policies of the Convention and relevant international norms”.[26] UNESCO, the WHC and the Advisory Bodies have for many years identified increasing human population as a major threat to the OUV of the site and have repeatedly recommended that Tanzania promote the “voluntary relocation” of Maasai pastoralist communities to areas outside of the NCA.

Subsequent developments in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

In September 2019, the Tanzanian government announced a plan to divide the NCA into four distinctive management zones. The plan, which is detailed in a comprehensive review of the Multiple Land Use Model,[27] would expand the size of the NCA from 8,100km2 to 12,083km2 by including parts of two adjacent Game Controlled Areas (GCA) – Loliondo GCA and Lake Natron GCA. At the same time, new restricted areas would be created within the NCA, significantly reducing the land available to the Maasai for pastoralism, housing and farming crucial to their livelihoods. According to local observers, this would be devastating given that the Maasai already face severe food insecurity as a result of existing restrictions. The plan would imply the eviction of people from wide areas of Ngorongoro district, including parts of the existing NCA, and has been strongly rejected by pastoralist representatives.[28]

Local commentators have highlighted the “egregious role of UNESCO in the new plan”,[29] linking it directly to the recommendations of the 2019 monitoring mission. This mission once again expressed various concerns about the impacts of pastoralism, human settlements and cultivation, and encouraged Tanzania to “complete the Multiple Land Use Model review exercise and share the results with the World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies to advise on the most appropriate land use model, including in the matter of settling local communities in protected areas”.[30] Moreover, the Tanzanian National Commission for UNESCO is apparently advocating for the total abandonment of the multiple land use model and the removal of people to create a nature reserve, only retaining traditional settlements (bomas) for cultural tourism.[31]

Developments in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

After the killing of a Batwa boy by park guards in 2017, the “Whakatane Dialogue” process between the conservation authorities and the Batwa ground to a halt. The dialogue was aimed at addressing the persistent livelihood problems of the Batwa, who were forcibly evicted from the Kahuzi-Biega National Park (PNKB) in the 1970s and now live in a situation of extreme poverty in the periphery of the park. In August 2018, more than 200 Batwa families decided to return to their ancestral lands and began occupying areas of the park without authorisation from the conservation authorities. This led to an increase of prohibited activities such as hunting, wood cutting and charcoal-making in some parts of the park (to some extent carried out by non-Indigenous individuals) and growing tension between Batwa and park guards. A series of violent clashes in mid-2019 resulted in the deaths of three Batwa and two eco-guards.[32] In September, a high-level dialogue meeting was organised in Bukavu in order to find ways of resolving the conflicts. At this meeting, representatives of the provincial government, the conservation authorities and the Batwa families agreed to work together for a peaceful coexistence of eco-guards and Batwa in order to conserve the exceptional biological values ​​of PNKB. The government made various promises to the Batwa, including the granting of land outside the park, provision of brick houses, schooling of Batwa children, construction of a health centre and hiring of Batwa as eco-guards.[33] Based on these promises, the Batwa families in November voluntarily left the spaces they had occupied in PNKB.[34]

However, in late January 2020, eight Batwa people, whom the park authorities accused of carrying out illegal agricultural activities and making charcoal in the park, were arrested by the Congolese Army in a village near PNKB and charged with criminal conspiracy, illegal possession of firearms and malicious destruction of the park. On 4 February, after a one-day sham trial in front of a military tribunal, six Batwa were sentenced to 15 years, and two to one-year imprisonment. According to the UK-based Forest Peoples Programme,

the Park authorities have shown no willingness to meet any of the commitments they have made to communities in previous discussions and instead have taken the route of violence and intimidation in order to keep Batwa people out of the Park by force… [They] are not seriously interested in a genuine dialogue.[35]

In an unrelated development, the ACHPR, at its 64th ordinary session, decided to admit a human rights complaint brought on behalf of the Batwa evicted from PNKB in the 1970s. By declaring the complaint admissible, the ACHPR found that domestic remedies in the DRC were neither sufficiently available, effective nor efficient to ensure adequate redress for the violations suffered by the Batwa.[36]

Developments regarding the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex

In September 2019, Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) announced that the missing Karen human rights defender Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen from Kaeng Krachan National Park (KKNP) had been murdered, as a fragment of his burnt skull was found in an oil drum submerged in a reservoir inside KKNP. Billy was last seen in April 2014 in the custody of KKNP officials, who had detained him for allegedly collecting wild honey illegally. At the time of his disappearance, he was involved in a lawsuit against park officials concerning the burning of Karen houses during a series of forced evictions in 2011. In early November 2019, arrest warrants were issued for the former chief of KKNP and three other park officials on suspicion they murdered Billy, and subsequently criminal charges were filed by the DSI.[37]

At around the same time, in late November, Thailand was elected as a member of the WHC by the 22nd General Assembly of States Parties and announced that it would “push its agenda” and immediately resubmit the nomination of the KKFC for consideration by the WHC in 2020.[38]

Stefan Disko works as an independent consultant on issues related to Indigenous Peoples, heritage, and human rights. He holds an M.A. in ethnology and international law from LMU Munich and an M.A. in World Heritage Studies from BTU Cottbus.

Notes and References

[1] “WWF’s Secret War”. Accessed 2 March 2020: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/collection/wwfsecretwar

[2] Another area singled out by Buzzfeed, the proposed Messok Dja protected area (Congo), is part of the so-called “TRIDOM” landscape, which is a main target site of the Central African World Heritage Forest Initiative (CAWHFI), a collaborative undertaking between the World Heritage Centre, WWF and others aimed at, inter alia, strengthening anti-poaching efforts. See https://whc.unesco.org/en/cawhfi/; and UNESCO, 2010, World Heritage in the Congo Basin.

[3]“ WWF Executives Were Warned Of Widespread Atrocities By Anti-Poaching Rangers The Charity Funded”. BuzzFeed, 17 October 2019: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/katiejmbaker/wwf-executives-marco-lambertini-warned-abuses

[4] WWF Independent Review. Accessed 2 March 2020: https://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/wwf_independent_review_/

[5] UNESCO. “Indigenous Peoples stress that language is key to safeguarding World Heritage”. 10 July 2019: https://whc.unesco.org/en/news/2013

[6] Doc. WHC/19/43.COM/11A.

[7] For the complete list of amendments, see Decision 43 COM 11A

[8] Decision 43 COM 8B.10.

[9] Reference: OTH 7/2019, 28 Feb 2019. A similar communication was sent to the WHC.

[10] Doc. WHC/19/43.COM/INF.8B2.ADD.

[11] See Doc. WHC/19/43.COM/INF.18, p. 339.

[12] Decision 43 COM 8B.5.

[13] 43 COM 7A.4.

[14] 43 COM 7B.8.

[15] 43 COM 7B.30.

[16] 43 COM 7A.8.

[17] 43 COM 7B.33.

[18] 43 COM 7B.15.

[19] M. Swain, 2014, “Myth management in tourism's imaginariums”, https://www.berghahnbooks.com/title/SalazarTourism

[20] Decision 43 COM 7B.4. According to China’s 2018 SOC report, 390 of 422 households in the old village had signed a “voluntary relocation agreement” and were resettled by mid-2018, while 31 families remained in the old village. See https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1248/documents/

[21] Decision 43 COM 7B.6.

[22] K. Wang et al., 2019, “Residents’ Diachronic Perception of the Impacts of Ecological Resettlement in a World Heritage Site”, https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/16/19/3556; F. Han, 2008, "Cross-Cultural Confusion ", in Nelson and Callicott, eds., The wilderness debate rages on. UGA Press.

[23] Decision 43 COM 7A.10.

[24] M. Hopson, 2011, "The Wilderness Myth", https://lawpublications.barry.edu/ejejj/vol1/iss1/4

[25] Docs. WHC/18/42.COM/7A.Add (2018); WHC/19/43.COM/7A.Add (2019).

[26] See Decision 43 COM 7B.39 and


[27] Excerpts of the MLUM review are available at https://www.oaklandinstitute.org/unesco-ngorongoro-conservation-area-report-related-documents

[28] See Oakland Institute, https://www.oaklandinstitute.org/dividing-ngorongoro-conservation-management-resettlement-plan; and S. Nordlund, http://termitemoundview.blogspot.com/2019/10/after-60-years-of-ncaa-ngorongoro-chief.html.

[29] Oakland Institute, ibid.

[30]Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage - Mission Report. 13 June 2019: https://whc.unesco.org/document/174817

[31] See p. 88 of the MLUM review.

[32] Kenrick, Justin ” Further clashes between eco-guards and Batwa reported on a daily basis in DRC”.

Forest Peoples Programme, 2 August 2019: https://www.forestpeoples.org/en/whakatane-mechanism-rights-based-conservation/news-article/2019/drc-batwa-need-avenue-peacefully

[33] See “Un dialogue de haut niveau sur le processus de la protection durable du parc national de kahuzi-biega à Bukavu”, 22 September 2019: http://www.kahuzibiega.org/2019/09/22/ ; and Sud-Kivu: en visite au PNKB, le ministre Claude Nyamugabo prêche la paix entre l’ICCB et les pygmées”. 10 October 2019:


[34]Archives journalières: 06/11/2019:  https://www.radiomaendeleo.info/2019/11/06

[35]“Update: Batwa communities and Kahuzi-Biega National Park”. Forest Peoples Programme, 14 February 2020:  https://www.forestpeoples.org/en/lands-forests-territories/news-article/2020/update-batwa-communities-and-kahuzi-biega-national-park . For details on the trial, see “The Kasula Trial: punishment without justice”. Forest People Programme, 14 February 2020: https://www.forestpeoples.org/en/lands-forests-territories/news-article/2020/kasula-trial-punishment-without-justice

[36]Minority Rights International Group. “DRC: The admissibility decision of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on a case involving the eviction of Indigenous people from their ancestral lands represents a beacon of hope”. 2 July 2019: https://minorityrights.org/2019/07/02/

[37] For details, see”Thailand's disappeared Karen activist Billy and the burned village”. BBC Thai, 2 January 2020: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-50823872  and Topics:

“Billy murdered” at Bangkok Post: https://www.bangkokpost.com/topics/1746074/billy-murdered. In January 2020, the murder charges against the officials were dropped by state prosecutors due to an alleged lack of evidence, however, the DSI said it would challenge the prosecutors’ ruling to the attorney-general. See “Thailand: Charges Dropped in Activist’s Murder”. Human Rights Watch, 3 February 2020: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/02/03/thailand-charges-dropped-activists-murder

[38] “World Heritage Committee membership ups chance for listings” Bangkok Post, 29 November 2019: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1804444/world-heritage-committee-membership-ups-chance-for-listings#cxrecs_s


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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