IUCN says it will make systematic effort to recognize and protect arid regions
SUMMIT COUNTY — Any desert rat will tell you that deserts get a bad rap. Far from being just arid inhospitable places, they are unique and fragile environments and surprisingly full of life. But up to now, deserts have been under-represented on the list of world heritage sites that are recognized for their global cultural or natural values.
But the International Union for the Conservation of Nature aims to change that with a systematic effort to identify, list and conserve more deserts through the World Heritage Convention. The IUCN will dedicate a study to deserts to be published in September, which could be the first step toward listing places like Death Valley or the Atacama Desert in South America.
“Deserts host unique and rare fauna and flora specially adapted to extreme conditions but they are often overlooked,” said IUCN world heritage project manager Tilman Jaeger “For instance, few people know that the Bodélé Depression in Chad is the largest source of dust on earth, delivering nutrients to the oceans and as far as the Caribbean.”
And dust blowing off the Mongolian steppes also helps fertilize algae in the Pacific, a little-known role of deserts in global ecosystems.
“An estimated eight percent of the world’s population, 500 million people, live in or around deserts and depend on them for their livelihoods and as sources of income through tourism, irrigated agriculture and the exploitation of oil and gas,” said Jaeger. “But they are also vulnerable systems that take a long time to recover from damage.”
Deserts and their inhabitants suffer from a variety of threats including climate change, exploitation of scarce water resources for mining and irrigation as well as over-use of the sparse vegetation through grazing and firewood collection. Several deserts have a history of military and weapons testing, including nuclear weapons with on-going major contamination. They are also home to traditional, typically nomadic cultures.
The IUCN wants to raise the profile of deserts in the World Heritage arena, and encourage the use of the World Heritage Convention to ensure the long-term conservation of the most valuable desert areas,” Jaeger concluded.
The World Heritage Convention recently wrapped up its annual meeting in Brasilia and added several new sites, including an island and coral reef complex in Hawai’i and the Bikini Atoll nuclear test site.
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