This Economist article on World Heritage sites in Africa misses a distinction between the US and the European approach to the World Heritage Convention. When I was on the US delegation to the World Heritage Convention annual committee meeting many years ago, I learned that over the years, the US has favored designating natural sites as additions to the World Heritage List, while the Europeans have favored adding manmade cultural and historical sites to the List.
This preference for natural sites may date back to the US accession to the World Heritage Convention in 1973, when Richard Nixon was President. I don’t think of Nixon as an environmental President, but he created the Environmental Protection Agency as well as joining the World Heritage Convention. His supporters included many rich businessmen, whose environmental interests generally run toward preserving nature as it is. I think of the Nature Conservancy as the kind of environmental organization rich people would support, as opposed to Greenpeace, for example. Both of these organizations are genuinely interested in preserving the environment, but they go about it in different ways. A Congressional Research Service report on the Convention was prepared in 2011, giving a lot of background on the US participation.
There is an additional reason for the lack of African World Heritage sites described in the Economist article. The Convention requires that countries where sites are located must take care of them. Many African countries with wonderful natural sites do not have the resources to preserve them. We are all familiar with the damage done by elephant poaching over the years, for example, even though elephant habitat is in some of the more advanced African countries. On the protection issue there is a division between the overseers. I come down on the side of those who support naming a worthwhile site even if there is some doubt about whether the host country can care for it properly. Others will only support a new site if they are confident the country can care for it. I think designating a site at least gives the Convention the ability to pressure and cajole the host country to preserve the site. Otherwise, development or poaching is almost sure to lead to its destruction.