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Plastic pollution countermeasures needed at remote World Heritage sites: UNESCO official

A green sea turtle that died after being tangled in a fishing net lies on the beach of British Henderson Island in 2015. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lavers)

PARIS -- The contamination of remote island World Heritage sites with plastic waste has prompted a UNESCO official to propose the creation of an international framework on pollution countermeasures.

Fanny Douvere, coordinator of UNESCO's World Heritage Marine Program, is calling for a framework similar to the Paris Agreement on measures to prevent global warming. She cited Henderson Island in the South Pacific Ocean as "the most polluted island on the planet" that remains a World Heritage site.

The uninhabited island was registered as a Natural Heritage site in 1988 as the beauty of its landscape and biodiversity were appreciated. People generally visit the island only once every several years. But in spite of the lack of a constant human presence, recent studies show that a massive amount of plastic waste has been washed ashore along the coast of the island.

Plastic waste has apparently drifted to the island and other uninhabited land masses from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area in the South Pacific Ocean where plastic accumulates.

According to Douvere, World Heritage sites such as Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the Philippines, Komodo National Park in Indonesia, Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles and Hawaii's Papahanaumokuakea marine conservation area have been affected by plastic waste.

UNESCO registers World Heritage sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger when their universal value is threatened by environmental destruction, natural disasters and other problems that require emergency protective measures.

With regard to marine World Heritage sites, East Rennell in the Solomon Islands and Everglades National Park in the United States have been registered on the List of World Heritage in Danger because of deforestation and a decline in water quality.

Douvere pointed out that contamination of the ocean with plastic waste is a global challenge and underscored the need for global efforts to tackle the problem.

"Obviously we could work together with U.K., the country which (Henderson) belongs to, to clean up the beaches," she says. But even if people try to rid the beaches of plastics, "tomorrow it will be all be back," she says.

"It's not like other World Heritage (sites) on the Danger List. It's like climate change. We need to work globally to reduce plastic," Douvere says.

In November 2018, UNESCO launched discussions on how regions and the international community can contribute to solving problems involving plastic waste.

Douvere commented that the World Heritage list is supported by 193 nations. "It's the only international convention for the conservation of nature that has many signatories. It's in fact considered as universally ratified." She said people can be warned about plastic pollution through World Heritage sites, and the international community can also be urged to take measures.

(Japanese original by Isamu Gaari, Paris Bureau)

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