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UNESCO Global Geoparks

UNESCO Geoparks now include 119 areas in 33 countries. We talk to Patrick McKeever about this important initiative.
This article appeared in Vol. 14, No. 1 - 2017

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UNESCO Global Geoparks now encompass 119 designated areas, varying in size from 57 to 12,884 km2, in 33 countries. Professor Patrick McKeever, Secretary of the UNESCO International Geoscience and Geoparks Programme, explains this important geoscience and environmental initiative.

What are UNESCO Global Geoparks? 

Oki Islands UNESCO Global Geopark, Japan. The official definition is: 

“UNESCO Global Geoparks are single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development. The international geological significance of a UNESCO Global Geopark is determined by scientific professionals, as part of a ‘UNESCO Global Geopark Evaluation Team’, who make a globally comparative assessment based on the peer-reviewed, published research conducted on geological sites within the area. UNESCO Global Geoparks use geological heritage, in connection with all other aspects of that area’s natural and cultural heritage, to enhance awareness and understanding of key issues facing society in the context of the dynamic planet we all live on.” 

What does this really mean, however? 

Essentially UNESCO Global Geoparks are those special places around the world that not only tell part of the history of the planet but also celebrate how our geological heritage is linked to all other types of heritage. This forms the basis for community empowerment and the promotion of the area’s sustainable economic development. 

Why are they important? 

For a number of reasons. At the most basic, they bring international recognition to areas of internationally significant geology. But because they are a bottom-up initiative that will only develop where there is local community support and involvement, they also help bring the wonders of geology to a whole new audience. This is good for geology and for geologists as it helps explain to the wider sector the importance of the geological sciences. But it is more than that. UNESCO Global Geoparks engage with local people to ensure that the Geoparks are active territories where the promotion of geological heritage can assist in the area’s sustainable economic development through, for example, the development of sustainable tourism based on the geological heritage. It allows local people to place greater value on their geological heritage, to take local ownership of it.

Is a UNESCO Geopark only about geology? 

Indeed no, it is not. We like to think of the ‘geo’ part of Geopark as referring to ‘Gaia’ – Earth itself, and everything Earth has given us and every way it has shaped us. It is only when you delve into these topics that you begin to see how geodiversity, biodiversity, cultural diversity and even the diversity of our intangible heritage are so intimately linked. Many local communities associate their geological heritage with their myths and legends (think of the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, or how the indigenous people of the Andes explain their volcanoes). It is really these links that Geoparks help explore and that form the basis for many of the hiking or cycling routes that can be found in most UNESCO Global Geoparks.

What advantages does UNESCO ratification give a Geopark? 

Prof. McKeever in Warrambungles National Park in New South Wales (Australia), which, along with the wider area, is working to become a UNESCO Global Geopark. Originally from Northern Ireland, Prof McKeever has been working with the UNESCO-endorsed European Geoparks Network since 2001 and in 2012 he joined UNESCO as the Chief of Section and as Secretary of the International Geoscience Program. Geoparks first developed in Europe in 2000. In 2004, in UNESCO HQ, these European Geoparks came together with eight new Geoparks in China to create the Global Geoparks Network. The relationship with UNESCO continued to develop until, in November 2015, the member states of UNESCO voted to accept all existing Global Geoparks as new UNESCO Global Geoparks, marking the creation of the first new site designation of this type since the ratification of the World Heritage Convention in 1972. 

This has proven to be quite a watershed; not only can Geoparks now officially use the name of UNESCO Global Geopark but there is a new official UNESCO brand. The new label also means sites must have official national government approval, something that often wasn’t there before. It marks a step change in how sites can promote themselves. In the coming years we anticipate that this will mean increased income to the local communities of our UNESCO Global Geoparks, leading to a tangible increase in their standard of living.

What is the difference between UNESCO Geoparks and World Heritage Sites and can an area be both? 

An area can be both but there should not be 100% overlap as the two labels have different requirements that in some ways are mutually exclusive. For example, World Heritage Sites are solely about conservation. There is nothing in the World Heritage Convention about the involvement of local people or sustainable development. Within the core zone of World Heritage sites, there can be little or no development. By contrast, there are no such restrictions on UNESCO Global Geoparks; indeed, UNESCO Global Geoparks are obliged to develop, to promote the economic development of all of the area. We have a few examples of where individual World Heritage Sites, both natural and cultural, form just one of many individual sites within a much larger UNESCO Global Geopark. A good example would be the Messel Pit fossil site in Germany which is on the World Heritage list. Messel however is also an important site within the larger Bergstrasse-Odenwald UNESCO Global Geopark and there is excellent cooperation between the two labels. 

Tell us about the bottom-up approach of conservation and sustainable development. 

It is impossible for an area with no population to become a UNESCO Global Geopark, or if it just has the support of the local population, but not their inclusion in the running of the Geopark. Local people are trained to be Geopark Rangers or Ambassadors, where they can act as tour guides, or sell their local produce and crafts, provide visitor services and accommodation or, in tectonically active areas, act as focal points for explaining about the risks of geohazards such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunami. 

So important is this bottom-up approach to local community involvement that it is one of the reasons that UNESCO only gives an area the UNESCO Global Geopark designation for four years. After that there is a thorough revalidation exercise and if, at that stage, UNESCO feels that local communities are no longer supportive, or are no longer involved or not getting real benefit, then the area risks losing the designation altogether. 

  • Qeshm Island in Iran recently lost its status as a UNESCO Global Geopark (see Where Wise Birds Stay Awhile by Susan Turner, link below). (Sources: NASA/TUBS)

What are your ambitions for the network over the next ten years? 

Well, day to day work in UNESCO is such that I haven’t yet had the luxury to think about that. I still can hardly believe we managed to make this new designation just 15 months ago. When I first became involved in Geoparks in 2000, no one even dreamed such a thing would be possible. Looking ten years ahead, I would really like to see that the label ‘UNESCO Global Geopark’ is fully recognised as a global label of quality in transforming the lives of local people for the better and in a fully sustainable way. I would like to see UNESCO Global Geoparks established across Africa, Latin America and South and South-East Asia, as I feel that it is in these areas that the economic development potential of Geoparks can be maximized. Finally, I would also hope that in ten years time, more people would come to know about and cherish the wonderful history of our planet which can be read in the rocks all around this. I am sure this would be of enormous benefit to earth science and earth scientists.

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