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Satellites in support of World Heritage


Last week the historic fortified town of Campeche, in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, was the centre for a Conference on the use of space technologies to conserve the world’s natural and cultural heritage, including UNESCO biosphere reserves.

Experts representing more than 30 countries attended this international conference on the ’Use of Space Technologies for the Conservation of Natural and Cultural Heritage’, organised by the National Institute of Anthropology and Historia (INAH) in Campeche, together with ESA, UNESCO and EURISY, a non-profit European organisation which aims to promote the use of space technologies.

Present were representatives of UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Mayan world (Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Costa Rica); the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador); Iguazu Park (Brazil, Argentina); Old Havana (Cuba); the Taj Mahal (India); the Great Wall (China); Calakmul (Mexico); the Altai mountain range (Russia); Cocos Island (Costa Rica) and Machu Picchu (Peru). Experts in space technologies from ESA and NASA, together with members of the German, Canadian, Argentinean and Syrian space agencies, universities and research institutions, also attended the Conference.

The five-day Conference discussed the problems of conserving sites classified by UNESCO as ’World Heritage sites’, as well as ways in which satellite images and technologies can be used as a tool to benefit conservation and detect possible risks to this heritage of humanity.

World heritage threatened

Our world possesses places as unique and varied as the great pyramids of Egypt, the tombs of the Buganda kings at Kasubi in Uganda and the Komodo National Park in Indonesia. This extraordinary cultural and natural diversity is an important source of life and inspiration for humanity and its preservation is a responsibility that should be shared by the whole international community.

Natural catastrophes, an excess of tourists, atmospheric contamination, acid rain and global warming are just some of the major threats to these sites. This is why, in June 2003, ESA and UNESCO decided to come together to call upon international space agencies to join the ’Open Initiative’ aimed at helping developing countries improve the conservation of their World Heritage sites by using satellite images.

"The cooperation that space agencies give UNESCO is in fact an ’injection’ of technology to increase the protection of UNESCO World Heritage sites and Biosphere Reserves", said Mario Hernandez of UNESCO.

Carlos Vidal, the Director of (INAH) in Campeche commented: "In Campeche we have a great variety of cultural and natural sites; with pride we can say that several of these have been recognised as World Heritage sites. We have intensive conservation programmes for these sites and some already benefit from space technologies. We are looking forward to seeing how space can further assist and aid the conservation of our sites."

ESA representatives Maurizio Fea and Jean Charles Bigot, underlined to those present that the conservation of our natural and cultural heritage is of concern to us all. They highlighted ESA’s efforts to support UNESCO in its conservation activities by making available its expertise and satellite images provided by the European satellite Envisat. UNESCO is then able to use these images in its activities to conserve natural and cultural sites, and to identify a ’safety belt’ around protected areas.

Prior to the Conference, World Heritage site managers were invited to attend a training course supported by ESA, the EC-sponsored project EPOCH and UNESCO. The course enabled them to become better acquainted with space technologies and photogrammetry, and their uses and limitations in applications to monitor World Heritage sites. In this way, World Heritage site managers were able to benefit far more from the discussions during the Conference.

The conclusions and recommendations drawn up by the Conference will be issued shortly by UNESCO.

Maurizio Fea | alfa
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