United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
Satellites to the rescue of world heritage

Paris – An agreement signed today between UNESCO and the European Space Agency (ESA) will encourage Earth observation satellites 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 Koďchiro Matsuura and the Director-General of ESA, Antonio Rodotŕ, officially launches the Open Initiative partnership between UNESCO and ESA, which 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 Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CONAE), 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.

In April this year, ESA provided significant funding and technical know-how for a joint project with UNESCO called BeGo (Built Environment for Gorilla). This project involves the production of a series of maps of national parks in inaccessible mountain areas (up to 5000m) in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that are home to the mountain gorilla. The Virunga National Park (DRC), the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda) are already World Heritage sites, while the Parc National des Volcans (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. The Government of Belgium is also providing expertise and financial support for these conservation activities in sites in DRC.

Of the 730 properties inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, 563 are cultural sites, 144 are natural and 23 are mixed.

Source Press Release No 2003 - 35
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Editorial Contact: Peter Coles: Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section. Tel: +33 (0)1 4568 1710
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Publication Date 18 Jun 2003
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