PH wins seat in UN World Heritage Committee

Pia Ranada
The Philippines' seat in the World Heritage Committee is a recognition of the country's heritage conservation efforts, says conservationist

HISTORIC CITY. Calle Crisologo is the most-visited street in UNESCO World Heritage Site Vigan City. Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines is now one of 21 countries with the power to confer the coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site title to deserving sites.

The Philippines won a seat in the UNESCO World Heritage Committee during elections held in Paris, France, on Tuesday, November 19.

It received 116 votes, the second highest number of votes after Turkey. The other member countries of the committee are Algeria, Colombia, Croatia, Finland, Germany, India, Jamaica, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Republic of Lebanon, Malaysia, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Senegal, Serbia, Turkey, and Vietnam.

The Philippines will serve a 4-year term, from 2013 to 2017. 

The World Heritage Committee is tasked with implementing the World Heritage Convention, which promotes and protects heritage sites all over the world.

The members of the committee – called state parties – decide which sites deserve to be included in the World Heritage List. The list is composed of the planet’s most important historical, cultural, and natural sites, from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to the Great Wall of China.

The Philippines is home to 5 World Heritage sites:

  • Baroque Churches of the Philippines located in Manila, Santa Maria, Paoay, and Miag-ao
  • Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in Palawan
  • Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras
  • Historic City of Vigan in Ilocos Sur
  • Puerto Princesa Subterrenean River National Park in Palawan

The state parties study nominations for World Heritage Sites, evaluate them, and give recommendations on how to strengthen the nomination. (READ: Celebrating PH’s World Heritage sites)

SAVING THE RICE TERRACES. Saving the Cordillera Rice Terraces from the World Heritage in Danger List put the Philippines in the map for its heritage conservation efforts

The committee also decides how to allocate the annual US$4-million World Heritage Fund, a fund meant for the identification, promotion, and preservation of World Heritage Sites. The fund can also be used to provide emergency assistance and urgent action for World Heritage Sites damaged by man-made or natural disasters.

Can this fund be used to repair the historic churches damaged by Typhoon Yolanda and the Visayas earthquake?

“The fund can be used for emergency assistance, but priority is for World Heritage Sites of which there are none in Cebu, Bohol, and Leyte,” said Augusto Villalon, technical representative of the Philippines in the World Heritage Committee.

“But we are talking to the World Heritage Center and other UNESCO offices for assistance schemes.”

It may also set back dreams of adding more Philippine sites to the list. Committee member states cannot submit new nominations for their own sites during their term.

“The next 4 years will then give us the opportunity to prepare the dossiers for our nominated sites. Hopefully, we use that time to work on the nominations,” said Ivan Henares, president of the Heritage Conservation Society.

Many Filipino heritage advocates are hoping for two more sites to be declared as World Heritage: the traditional stone Ivatan houses in Batanes and the historic Taal town in Batangas.

Historic feats

The Philippines’ seat in the World Heritage Committee is a recognition of the country’s heritage conservation efforts, Villalon told Rappler.

In fact, attaining the seat “was not difficult given our positive record in World Heritage.”

The country’s heritage projects were first internationally acknowledged in 2012 when it was able to rescue the Cordillera Rice Terraces from the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger List, where it had been languishing for 11 years.

The feat was astonishing because the initiative was completely funded by local communities in the Cordilleras. It did not involve external financial assistance from the national government or international organizations.

“No other country has done that,” Villalon said with pride.

The same year, heritage city Vigan was given the “Best Practice in World Heritage Site Management” award for its sustainable conservation using limited resources and the city’s multi-faceted and multi-sectoral approach to protecting its historic sites. (READ: Vigan makes it to New7Wonders Cities finals)

This is actually the country’s second time as a member of the committee, said Villalon. The last time was back in 2000.

“There is a long gap in between. It’s good to be a member again and at the maturity of the World Heritage Committee. There are new challenges to face, such as changes in implementation and ways of managing the Convention.”

Despite the Philippines’ many heritage citations, many Filipinos still don’t see the value in heritage sites, lamented Villalon. He hopes the newly-conferred seat will improve heritage awareness in the country. – Rappler.com

Cordillera rice terraces image from Shutterstock

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.