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Venice, Kyoto, Oamaru – pick the odd one out!

PARIS, Rome, Venice, Kyoto, Oamaru – pick the odd one out.

The correct answer is, of course, the limestone-built port city in North Otago. Unlike the others - objectively speaking - it is not a World Heritage Site, that is, not yet.

Oamaru is one of six tentative candidates on a list the Government is compiling of potential World Heritage Sites, now out for public consultation. Sites on the final list may then be nominated to an international committee for approval.

Kahurangi National Park and Farewell Spit, the Kermadec Islands and surrounding marine reserve, Papamoa Pa complex near Tauranga, Waitangi Treaty grounds, and Napier’s art deco precinct are the others.

It may seem bizarre that these places would qualify as being of “outstanding value to humanity” - to quote the World Heritage Committee definition - compared to the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China or the Grand Canyon.

Yet this is precisely what the Government is arguing in its public discussion document - Our World Heritage: Towards a New Zealand Tentative List.

“It’s about recognising the special places around the world that are the best of the best, in terms of their natural or cultural significance,” Conservation Minister Chris Carter said on releasing the document in Wellington (12 January).

Oamaru’s central business district, for example, may be the best of the best for late 19th Century architecture echoing the prosperity of the world’s first frozen meat exports. The advent of this refrigerated shipping in Oamaru contributed to the break-up of England’s large country estates.

The creamy-white Oamaru stone may seem tame compared to the Pyramids of Egypt or the Bamiyan Buddhas (destroyed by the Taleban in 2001) but could well meet two world cultural heritage criteria - outstanding buildings, and technology change leading to an improvement in human living standards.

And to be fair to Oamaru, who has ever heard of Butrint, Trogir, Coro or Hampi? They are World Heritage Sites in Albania, Croatia, Venezuela and India, respectively.

“One of the things the committee is grappling with is how to interpret cultural heritage of outstanding universal value in countries as young as New Zealand,” says Andrew Bignell, the Conservation Department’s international relations manager. “There are moves to look at cultural world heritage outside Europe, the continent of traditional focus.”

Of the current total of 788 World Heritage Sites, 367 are in Europe, the front-runners being Italy and Spain with close to 40 each. The United Kingdom has 26, of which the best known are Stonehenge, Westminister Abbey and the Tower of London.

New Zealand has three, the first two listed shortly after we signed the World Heritage Convention in 1984. They are: Te Wahipounamu (Southwest New Zealand), Tongariro National Park, and the New Zealand Subantarctic Islands.

The world heritage movement began in the 1950s, when the newly-contructed Aswan Dam on the Nile threatened to flood the Abu Simbel temples, famous for the huge sandstone statues of pharoah Rameses II, his wife, and Egyptian deities carved into the facades.

“It was realised that Abu Simbel was the world’s heritage, not just Egypt’s,” says Les Molloy, a former DOC director who wrote much of the discussion document and who evaluates World Heritage Site nominations in Central Asia and East Asia and the Pacific for the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

“The monuments were moved stone by stone to higher ground where they remain today. We all want to see and visit these places intact; that’s why the World Heritage Convention was developed. Likewise, the world community wants to see New Zealand’s outstanding natural and cultural heritage protected.”

In preparing for another round of World Heritage applications, New Zealand is fortunate with its timing. For the first time in the committee’s 32-year history New Zealand is represented on the 21-country body.

Our delegate, Ngati Tuwharetoa paramount chief Tumu Te Heu Heu, will help push heritage conservation in New Zealand and the region, Mr Bignell says. “His standing through the Pacific gives him connections - he gets to places we don’t as bureaucrats.”

New Zealanders will have till 31 March to comment on the discussion document and/or suggest new sites. After that, a lengthy screening process wheels into motion, involving officials from DOC, Ministry of Culture and Heritage, Historic Places Trust, and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

Any sites proposed must be shown to be of outstanding significance and also of global significance, Mr Molloy says. “For instance, if the Rotorua geothermal area with its internationally-famous geysers and formations was suggested to be listed it would still have to be shown to be sufficiently different from those of Yellowstone National Park, already a World Heritage Site.”

Of Kahurangi National Park, the discussion document says, “no other protected area in New Zealand has such a diversity of geological history and rock types, landforms and plant communities.” The area is a hotspot for native plants, giant land snails and native fish found nowhere else in New Zealand. Nearby Farewell Spit is an internationally-recognised wetland and important site for shore bird species.

The subtropical Kermadec Islands Marine Reserve stands out for its size and lack of historic or current human exploitation.

The Papamoa Pa complex is an archaeological treasure ground of Maori middens, gardens, storage pits, ovens, terraces, and fortifications, mainly from the 17th Century.

Napier’s architecture post-1931 – when an earthquake destroyed most of the city’s original buildings - anchored the Hawke’s Bay city in the art deco era.

The Treaty of Waitangi was singular in British colonial history for having been entered into as a matter of deliberate policy, and as a bilingual document.

New Zealand World Heritage Sites

Te Wahipounamu: New Zealand’s largest site, covering 10 per cent of our land area, and one of the great mountain wilderness sites in the world. Comprises Fiordland, Aoraki/Mt Cook, Westland/Tai Poutini and Mt Aspiring National Parks, and other conservation areas in Southwest New Zealand. First listed as World Heritage in 1986 and doubled in area in 1990, for outstanding glaciated landforms, and flora and fauna linked to the ancient southern supercontinent of Gondwana.

Tongariro National Park: Recognised in 1990 as a natural site, having some of the most continuously active volcanoes in the world, with a glacier-fed hot crater lake on Mt Ruapehu. It was also listed as a cultural site in 1993, recognising its cultural associations for Ngati Tuwharetoa and Ngati Rangi.

New Zealand Subantarctic Islands: Comprises The Snares, Antipodes, Bounty, Campbell and Auckland Islands, and listed in 1998. “They contain some of the last truly pristine islands on Earth”, the discussion document says, “supporting a flora with a very high degree of endemism, and providing habitats for an outstanding diversity of seabirds as well as sea lions and whales”.

World Heritage criteria

The World Heritage Committee was established by the World Heritage Convention of 1972, under the aegis of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

The committee “seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.”

There are 10 criteria for recognition as a World Heritage Site, of which at least one must be met. All criteria stress that the site must have “outstanding universal value”.

Cultural heritage criteria include: Human creative genius Important interchange of human values or developments in arts, architecture or technology Cultural tradition or civilisation Outstanding buildings or landscapes Traditional human settlement, land or sea-use, or human interaction with the environment Living traditions, ideas, beliefs, artistic or literary works of universal significance.

Natural heritage criteria include: Superlative natural phenomena, or exceptional natural beauty Representing Earth history, from a geological processes point of view Ecological and biological processes In-situ conservation of indigenous flora and fauna.


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