Western Ghats get World Heritage Site tag

It is recognised as one of the world’s eight hottest hot spots of biological diversity

 
By Salma Rehman, Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

UNESCO's World Heritage Committee inscribed the Western Ghats of India as a world heritage site on July 1. The decision will ensure the mountain range, spread across seven states, gets international support for its conservation. The Western Ghats extend from Dang in Maharashtra-Gujarat to a place near Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, along the western coast; it is spread over 7,953 sq km.

Older than the Himalaya, the Western Ghats mountain chain is recognised as one of the world’s eight “hottest hot spots” of biological diversity. The World Heritage Committee, which met in St Petersburg in Russia, acknowledged that the Western Ghats forests include some of the best representatives of non-equatorial tropical evergreen forests anywhere and are home to at least 325 globally threatened flora, fauna, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish species. Its ecosystems influence the Indian monsoon weather pattern. “Moderating the tropical climate of the region, it presents one of the best examples of the monsoon system in the planet,” says a news release of the committee.
 

The tag however is expected to make little difference to many ecologicaly destructive projects that have been implemented or are proposed in the Western Ghats. The current mining sites, for example, were carefully excluded from the proposed list of sites for the world heritage status. There is not a single site from Goa, where large scale illegal mining is happening, among the 39 sites selected for the tag.
 
The World Heritage Committee meets every year to identify, on the basis of nominations submitted by member countries, the cultural and natural sites having “outstanding universal value” to inscribe them on the World Heritage Sites list. The sites are protected under the Convention on Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage with the assistance from the World Heritage Fund of UNESCO. 

Recognition comes after rejection

The world heritage tag for the Western Ghats has come after many glitches. The proposal for including 39 sites in the Western Ghats as world heritage was rejected by the World Heritage Committee in its 35th meeting last year. When the proposal for it was re-submitted for consideration this year, it was once gain on the verge of getting rejected. As the committee’s meet started on June 24, the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), based on its field evaluation, recommended to the Committee to defer the consideration of the Western Ghats dossier. It suggested that India should review and refine the proposal to redefine the boundaries of the proposed sites to maintain the contiguity of the forests and exclude the disturbed areas as defined in the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) report and take note of the recommendations of the report
 

WGEEP was constituted by the ministry in February 2010 to assess the status of ecology of the Western Ghats and to recommend measures for conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the region. The panel, headed by environmentalist Madhav Gadgil, had identified several eco-sensitive zones in the region. Many of the states opposed the heritage tag for the Western Ghats, saying it will restrict the development. WGEEP had objected to several power and mining projects in the mountain range

While it was being assumed that UNESCO was unlikely to overrule IUCN's recommendation, the Indian delegation in St Petersburg managed to convince the world heritage committee on the merits of India’s proposal. “The environment ministry delegation submitted a written brief against the IUCN’s recommendations for deferral and discussed the issues with the 21 members of the committee. The delegation of the Russian Federation then moved a proposal to recommend amendment for inscription against the IUCN recommendation of deferral. The representatives of Algeria, Cambodia, Columbia, Ethiopia, Iraq, Japan, Malyasia, Mali, Mexico, Qatar, Senegal, South Africa, United Arab Emirates and Thailand also came out strongly in favour of India,” informed a member of Indian delegation to a conservationist in India through e-mail.

'Intensified conservation efforts needed'

 

113 MW wind power project

"We welcome this gesture and hope that the government will be morally motivated to work for the conservation of these ecologically crucial sites,” says Gadgil who headed WGEEP. “It will hopefully strengthen the Acts like Biological Diversity Act of 2002, which empowers the local bodies like panchayats to take appropriate steps for conservation. Under this Act the bodies also receive financial incentives for long-term conservation. The steps that would be followed after the inclusion (in world heritage list) are still doubtful," he adds.

Jagdish Krishnaswamy of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, who has been actively involved with the campaign for getting world heritage tag for the Western Ghats welcomed the development. “The Western Ghats are home to several rare, as well as endemic species and its soil and forests are rich in carbon content. It is a source of several non-timber forest products and medicinal herbs which support the livelihood of around that 160 million people who reside here. It aptly deserved the world heritage status,” he said. However, he cautioned that site is still governed by state governments and the inclusion doesn’t guarantee its conservation. “It is sort of a symbolic check so that the government preserves the site. More efforts are needed to be induced for conservation by state and central governments,” he added.

Atul Sathe, manager (communications) with Bombay Natural History Society, said the world heritage tag would get a lot of publicity worldwide for the Western Ghats and funds can also become available for conservation projects. “This will lead to sustainable economic activities to the benefit of the environment and communities. At the same time, there should be sincere and effective efforts on the part of all the concerned governments, departments, corporates, media and local people, to ensure that all development is sustainable and benefits the local environment and livelihoods. Protection should happen as a combination of protected areas and community conserved areas,” he added.

The other sites added on the world heritage list on June 30 are Major Mining Sites of Walonia in Belgium, Decorated Farmhouses of Hälsingland in Sweden, Carioca Landscapes between the Mountain and the Sea in Brazil, Neolithic Site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, Lakes of Ounianga in Chad, Sangha Trinational in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo and Chengjiang Fossil Site (China).
 

Home to rare, endemic flora, fauna
 
  • It is one of three global biodiversity hot spots in India. There are just 34 spots all over the world
  • The entire Western Ghats (Sahyadri) extend from Dang on Maharashtra-Gujarat to near Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, along the western coast that is 7,953 sq km of area
  • Western Ghats are home to several rare as well as endemic species of birds, animals, insects, fish, amphibians and plants. There are over 5000 species of flowering plants, 139 mammal species, 508 bird species and 179 amphibian species
  • Northern Western Ghats are known for several species of endemic limbless amphibians (caecilians) and floral diversity plateaus, such as Kaas
  • The floral vistas of Neela Kurunji in Kerala and Karvi in Maharashtra are a visual treat in monsoons after periodic intervals
  • Several streams originating in Western Ghats are home to endemic species of hill stream fish
  • The forests of the Western Ghats have a stabilizing effect on the climate, which induces heavy rains on the western slopes and the western coast and moderate rains on the eastern slopes
  • The ports and creeks along the western coast, which are so crucial to the economy of the region and transportation, can be kept navigable and silt free, only if the forests on the Western Ghats are preserved
  • The almost continuous forests along the crest and the base of the Western Ghats and the mangrove forests along the coast play a vital role in carbon sequestration and reduction of global warming
  • The cluster of sites considered for nomination are the landscapes of Agasthyamalai, Periyar, Anamalai, Nilgiris, Upper Cauvery in Kodagu, Kudremukh and Sahyadri.
  • India currently has 23 cultural sites and 5 natural sites on UNESCO's World Heritage Site list, but the newest addition would boast an additional area in the Western Ghats

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