The Quest for Inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List

Chocolate Hills Natural Monument remains on the Tentative List. Mayon Volcano, another natural wonder included on the Tentative List.

As of June 2020, of the 1,121 World Heritage Sites around the world, six sites in the Philippines are included on the list.

From 1993 to 1999, spanning nine locations, five UNESCO sites were inscribed on the list: the Baroque Churches of the Philippines (Miag-ao in Iloilo; Paoay in Ilocos Norte; Santa Maria in Ilocos Sur, and San Agustin in Manila) and Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (Palawan) in 1993; the Rice Terraces of the Philip-pine Cordilleras in 1995; and the Historic City of Vigan (locos Sur) and the Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park (Palawan) in 1999.

After a 14-year drought, with no UNESCO World Heritage designations, the Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary in Davao Oriental was added in 2014.

To travelers and tourists, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites are usually considered gorgeous “must-visit” places in any country. It begs the question, what is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and what are the advantages of being included on this prestigious list? UNESCO (short for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is a specialized agency of the United Nations that has, since 1959, been trying to protect and rescue endangered monuments and sites.

There are number of benefits to being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In relation to the country’s interests, the first is all about tourism. Once a site has been recognized, the site suddenly has a certain status that it didn’t have before, becoming more attractive to tourists, with travel writers and other news organizations helping to spread the word, and thereby, increasing tourist arrivals abroad for the much needed revenue. Second, once declared as something of historical significance, the site becomes eligible to receive funds for its protection and conservation, and third, the site receives, not only recognition, but also is protected from encroaching industrialization, mistreatment, or misuse. In addition, World Heritage Sites, under the Geneva Convention, are not permitted to be used in support of military efforts during wartime.

In 1999, Puerto Princesa Subterranean River was declared a World Heritage Site. San Agustin Church is in danger of removal from the World Heritage Site list.

To be on that prestigious list, a number of criteria has to be met and maintained by the designated custodians. In their drive to include a number of sites on the list, the Philippines’ campaign has met with mixed success.

Today, the four churches on the list, known collectively the Baroque Churches of the Philippines, are in danger of being delisted as a result of the construction of the controversial Chinese-funded Binondo-Intramuros Bridge across the Pasig River in Manila. The said bridge would encroach on the “buffer zone,” a requirement by the UNESCO for San Agustin Church (the oldest church in the Philippines) as a World Heritage Site.

If San Agustin Church is delisted, the three others (San Agustin in Paoay, Ilocos Norte; Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion in Santa Maria, Ilcoos Sur; and Santo Tomas de Villanueva in Miag-ao, Iloilo) will follow.

On November 19, 2018, UNESCO has expressed its concerns in a letter which has been forwarded by the UNACOM (UNESCO National Commission of the Philippines) to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). Despite receiving criticism, the government stated that the planned bridge will still push through.

Batad Rice Terraces, one of the rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras. Batanes is back to square one on its nomination to the prestigious list.

As of June, according the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), the construction of the PHP3.39 billion Binondo-Intramuros Bridge is already 70 percent complete and is expected to be fully built within this year.

Then there’s the Tentative List, an inventory of properties which each State Party intends to consider for nomination and, after undergoing a process, can finally be selected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Since 1993, the Batanes Protected landscapes and seascapes had been up for nomination. Nearly three decades later, it still hasn’t made it as a World Heritage Site. Initially, it was deferred by UNESCO due to lack of conservation.

Then, in 2005, the site officially was put in “deferred status,” awaiting “evidence of full commitment of the nominating government” to protect the property. Two years later, the site was put in “referred status” (the nomination referred back to the nominating state for further information and documentation), pending for the dossier to be submitted by the local authorities.

By the middle of 2008, all the documents were ready except for the Batanes dossier. UNESCO set the deadline for the dossier for site inscription in early 2010. However, the local officials of Batanes failed to make a dossier and thus, the site was officially taken out from “referred status.” Due to this, the nomination is back to square one.

Even staying on the Tentative List has been a challenge. The Minor Basilica of San Sebastian, the first and only all-steel church in Asia, used to be on that list but was removed in 2015 due to structural decay. To be re-included on this list as well as reestablish the site’s integrity, it underwent a massive restoration program which conservationists have cited as a megalithic success. However, on October 1, 2018, it was revealed that a 31-story residential highrise building of Summithome Realty Corporation is being planned to be constructed beside the historic church. Again, as the area around the church is integral to the site as a “buffer zone,” this negatively affected the site’s possible reinclusion on the tentative list.

The historic city of Vigan in Ilocos Sur joined the World Heritage Site list.

The year 2013 was a bad year as natural disasters became a factor for the removal from the Tentative List. And such as was the fate of Loboc Church in Bohol and Guiuan Church in Eastern Samar, both National Cultural Treasures, which were heavily damaged during the October 15 earthquake and Typhoon Haiyan on November 8, respectively. Both churches are now being rebuilt.

In 2006, Apo Reef Natural Parkand Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park, both in Mindoro; the Tabon Cave Complex (including all of Lipuun), the Coron Island Natural Biotic Area, Mt. Matalingajan Protected Landscape and the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area, all in Palawan; the Paleolithic Archaeological Sites in Cagayan Valley; the Kabayan Mummy Burial Caves and Mount Pulag National Park, both in Benguet; Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park and Outlying Areas Inclusive of the Buffer Zone in Isabela; the Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary in Tawi-Tawi; the Butuan Archeological Sites in Agusan del Norte; the Baroque Churches of the Philippines (Extension), the Petroglyphs and Petrographs of the Philippines; Mayon Volcano Natural Park in Albay; the Neo-lithic Shell Midden Sites in Lal-lo and Gattaran Municipalities in Cagayan; the Chocolate Hills Natural Monument in Bohol; and Mt. Malindang Range Natural Park in Misamis Occidental were added to the Tentative List.

Hopefully, we could have added success in this endeavor. As it is, there’s a lot of work to be done.

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