Friday, May 6, 2016

What’s so great about Spain? Assessing UNESCO World Heritage inequality.

Some places are more valuable than others. We often regard places as being of high or unique value if they possess high biological diversity, ancient cultural artefacts and structures, or outstanding geological features. These valuable places deserve special recognition and protection. The sad reality is that when we are driven by immediate needs and desires, these special places are lost.

The natural world, and the wonderful diversity of plants and animals, is on the losing end of a long and undiminished conflict with human population growth, development, and resource extraction. We don’t notice it when there is ample natural space, but as nature becomes increasingly relegated to a few remaining places, we place a high value on them.

The same can be said for places with significant cultural value. Ancient temples, villages, and human achievement are too valuable to lose and we often only have a few remnants to connect us to the past.

In either case, natural or cultural, when they’re gone, we lose a part of us. That is because these special places tell us about ourselves; where we come from, how the world shaped us, and what unites all of humanity. Why did the world cry out in a united voice when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, even though many of those concerned people were not Buddhist? The answer is simple –the expansion of Buddhism out of India along ancient trade routes tells us why many Asian nations share a common religion. They tell us about ourselves, the differences that interest us, and the similarities that bind us. The same can be said about the global outcry over the recent destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra by ISIS.

Before and after photos of the taller of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Image posted by Carl Montgomery CC BY-SA 3.0.

Similarly, the natural world tells us about ourselves. The natural world has constantly shaped and influenced what it means to be human. Our desires, fears, and how we interact with the natural world are products of our evolution. If I flash a picture of a car to my 500-student ecology class, very few students, if any, screech in fear. But if I flash a photo of a hissing cobra or close-up of a spider, invariably a bunch of students squirm, gasp, or scream. Rationally, this is an odd response, since cars are the leading cause of death and injury in many western countries. Snakes and spiders kill very few people in Canada.

These special places deserve recognition and protection, and that is what the UNESCO World Heritage designation is meant to achieve. To get this designation for a site requires that countries nominate ones that represent unique and globally significant contributions to world heritage, and are adequately protected to ensure the long-term existence of these sites.  World Heritage sites are amazing places. They represent the gems of our global shared heritage. They need to be protected in perpetuity and should be accessible to all people. Though some I have visited seem like they are loved too much with high visitation rates degrading some elements of Heritage sites.

Examples of UNESCO World Heritage sites. A) The Great Wall of China. B) The Gaoligong Mountains, part of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan. C) Angkor Wat in Cambodia. D) An example of a site that may be too loved -Lijiang in Yunnan. All photos by Shirley Lo-Cadotte and posted on our family travel blog -All The Pretty Places.

UNESCO World Heritage sites should also be representative. What I mean by this is that they should be designated regardless of national borders. Heritage sites are found on all continents across most countries –though a number of politically unstable countries (e.g., Liberia, Somalia, etc.) do not possess Heritage sites, likely because they lack the organization or resources to undertake the designation application process, and they lack the governance to ensure a site is adequately protected. But there are substantial differences in the number of World Heritage sites across nations[1]. Some countries, because of inherent priorities, national pride, resources or expertise, are better able to identify and persuade UNESCO that a particular place deserves designation.

The distribution of the number of UNESCO World Heritage sites across countries and the top ten.

Why do we see such disparity in the number of World Heritage sites -where many countries have few sites, and a few countries have many sites? This is a difficult question to answer, and to do so I took an empirical approach. I combined data on the number of sites per country with Gross Domestic Product (GDP)[2], country size[3], and country population size[4]. I then ran simple statistical analyses to figure out what predicts the number of Heritage sites, and identified those countries that are greatly over-represented by Heritage sites, and those that are very under-represented. A couple things to note, the best statistical models included variables that were all log-transformed, I excluded the World Heritage sites that spanned more than one country, and I did not include countries that did not have any Heritage sites. The data and R code have been posted to Figshare and are freely available.

All three of GDP, area, and population size predicted the number of World Heritage sites. It is important to note that these three country measures are not strongly correlated with one another (only moderately so). So, larger, richer and more populous countries had more World Heritage sites. This makes sense –big countries should contain more unique sites due to random chance and more populous countries tend to have longer historical presence of organized states, and so should possess more cultural relics (especially China). GDP is more difficult to assign a reason, but high GDP countries should have robust national parks or other bureaucratic structures that assess and protect important sites, making them easier to document and justify for UNESCO.  GDP is quite interesting, because it is the single best measure for predicting the number of Heritage sites, better than population size and area. Further, neither country density (population/area) nor productivity (GDP/population) are strong predictors of the number of Heritage sites.

The relationships between the number of World Heritage sites and GDP, area, and population. Note that the axes are all log-transformed.

While these relationships make sense, it is also clear that countries are not all close to the main regression line and some countries are well above the line –meaning they have more Heritage sites than predicted; as well as some below the line and thus having fewer sites. When I combine the different measures in different combinations and look for the best single statistical explanation for the number of World Heritage sites, I find that the combination including GDP and population size, and their interaction (meaning that population size is more important for high GDP countries) is the best. For aficionados, this model explains about 65% of the variation in the number of Heritage sites.

Now, we can identify those countries that are over or under represented by UNESCO World Heritage sites according to how far above or below countries are from the predicted line (technically, looking at statistical residuals).

The deviation of countries from the predicted relationship between the number of sites and GDP and population (and their interaction). The top 5 over-represented and under-represented countries are highlighted.

The top five over-represented countries are all European, which means that given their GDP and population size, these countries have more World Heritage sites than expected. At the other extreme, countries under-represented come from more diverse regions including Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

An interesting comparison to think about is Germany and Indonesia. Germany has more World Heritage sites than expected (residual = +0.61) and is a moderately sized, high GDP country. Let me say, I like Germany, I’ve been there a half a dozen times, and it has beautiful landscapes and great culture. However, does it deserve so much more World Heritage recognition than Indonesia, which has fewer sites than expected (residual = -0.63)? Indonesia has spectacular landscapes and immense biodiversity and great cultural diversity and history. To put it in perspective, Germany has 35 World Heritage sites and Indonesia has just 8.

To answer the question in the title of this post: what’s so great about Spain? Well, it not only has beautiful and diverse natural landscapes and cultural history, but it appears to have the infrastructure in place to identify and protect these sites. It's place at the top of UNESCOs relative (to GDP and population) ranking of the number of World Heritage sites means that Spain's natural and cultural wonders are in good hands. However, for the countries at the other end of the spectrum, having relatively few World Heritage sites probably is not a reflection of these countries being uninteresting, or that they have little to offer the world, rather it is something more alarming. These places lack the financial capacity or national will to fully recognize those places that are of value to the whole world. The problem is that the globally important heritage that does exist in these places is at risk of being lost. These under-represented countries serve as a call to the whole world to help countries not just identify and protect heritage sites but to aid these countries with infrastructure and human well-being that empowers them to prioritize their natural and cultural heritage.


Bruno Moreira said...

Its no Spain. Its the mediterranean Europe. Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. Maybe its not a coincidence.

Marc Cadotte said...

Thanks Bruno -true and easy to understand given the long accumulation of cultural artifacts. But other European countries (France, Germany, UK) also tend to be over-represented too.

Andy Green said...

Spain also has designated an unusually high number of Ramsar sites. However, I don't agree that high designation rates indicates that the sites are well looked after. That is a different question, and there is serious deterioration of Spanish WH sites such as Doñana