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Satellites to the rescue of world heritage

An agreement signed on June 18, 2003 between UNESCO and the European Space Agency (ESA) will encourage the use of Earth observation satellites (= principle of remote sensing) to be used to monitor more than 730 cultural and natural World Heritage sites, including national parks in Africa that are home to endangered mountain gorillas.

The signing of the Agreement, at the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget (France), by UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura and the Director-General of ESA, Antonio Rodotà, officially launches the Open Initiative partnership between UNESCO and ESA. The initiative aims to bring all international space agencies on board to assist developing countries to monitor their World Heritage sites. Also under the Open Initiative scheme, UNESCO is close to signing a cooperation agreement with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and has had requests to join from Argentina’s CONAE (Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales), as well as the Indian, Japanese, Canadian and Brazilian Space Agencies.

Civilian Earth observation satellites can now distinguish details as small as 60 cm wide. This makes them ideal tools for monitoring cultural sites and for mapping changes in land use, even in remote areas. And loss of forest habitat, both to make way for human settlement and to provide fuel, is the major threat to the remaining 600 or so mountain gorillas in central east Africa.

The Virunga National Park (DRC), the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda) are already World Heritage sites, while the National Volcano Park (Rwanda) and the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (Uganda) are candidate sites.

The project will compare satellite image archives to assess changes in gorilla habitats in World Heritage sites since 1992.

Belgium's Federal Science Policy Office contributes

In November last year a cooperation agreement was signed between the Belgian state (represented by the Science Policy Office) and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (the entity responsible for coordinating all the procedures for implementation of the Convention). Over a period of 5 years, a financial contribution averaging 150,000 euros per year has therefore been allocated to support the missions of the Centre.

Implementation of the cooperation agreement began at the end of 2002 with the launch of a project for the mapping, monitoring and conservation planning of five endangered WHP sites with natural landscape and habitat value in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The sites (tropical forest, mountains and volcanic regions as well as savannahs) are home to various endangered animal species such as the mountain gorilla, the okapi and the white rhinoceros. The sites are the following:

In war time, these parks are endangered by the human presence (rebels, population displacement), and in peace time, they are under threat for natural resources tapping (precious wood, diamonds, gold, colombo coltan, …).

The system to be implemented is based upon the most advanced techniques in Earth observation, a.o. the GPS.

Experts from the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve, Ghent University and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervueren work together on this project, which is in line with Belgium geopolitical interest for the region and with the biodiversity conservation concern in a general context of sustainable development. It is also a Belgian contribution to the Congo Basin Forest Partnership launched during the World Conference on Sustainable Development of Johannesburg, in August 2002.


The World Cultural and Natural Heritage Convention was submitted to Member States for signature in 1972. It is now ratified by up to 150 countries (one of whom is Belgium) and lists 730 sites, with 563 cultural sites, 144 natural sites and 23 mixed sites.

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