The UNESCO Global Geopark Program
UNESCO Global Geoparks are single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development.
While a geopark must demonstrate geological heritage of international significance, the purpose of a geopark is to explore, develop and celebrate the links between that geological heritage and all other aspects of the areas natural, cultural and intangible heritages. It is about reconnecting human society at all levels to the planet we all call home and to celebrate how our planet and it’s 4,600 million year long history has shaped every aspect of our lives and our societies.
Geoparks are both a development concept as well as a branding tool. They achieve these goals through conservation, education and geotourism. Geoparks can comprise both protected and non-protected areas and enable and celebrate sustainable development of primary industries.
Geoparks can evolve through a series of levels from ‘pre-aspiring’, ‘aspiring’, ‘national’, ‘regional’ (e.g. European or Asia-Pacific Regions) to ‘global’. There are now hundreds of geoparks around the world. Support to individual geoparks is offered through the Global Geoparks Network Bureau which is currently representing 120 members from 33 countries. The original target of the Global Geoparks Network is establishing 500 geoparks around the world. The number is growing at a rate of about 10 new global geoparks per year.
A decision to establish global geoparks as UNESCO sites was taken by Member States at the 38th UNESCO’s General Conference, the governing body of the organisation, which met in Paris from 3-18 November 2015. This new branding formalises a relationship with Geoparks first established in 2001. Global Geoparks have become an increasingly important tool for UNESCO to engage Member States and their communities in the Earth Sciences and geological heritage. During the UNESCO’s General Conference, Member States also decided to endorse the statutes of a new international programme: the International Geoscience and Geoparks Programme (IGGP). This allows the organisation to more closely reflect the societal challenges of Earth Science today and provides an international status to a former network of sites of geological significance.
Geoparks in China
In China, there are three levels of geoparks: provincial, national and global geoparks, as well as mining parks. They are all managed by local county or municipal governments under the direct supervision of the Ministry of Land and Resources. Currently, there are over 320 provincial geoparks in China, among which 200 have already gained national status. With 33 of these global geoparks (including Hong Kong Geopark) having acquired global status, China manages by far the largest number of global geoparks in the world.
Pre-Aspiring Global Geopark Projects in Australia
The process of developing a Pre-Aspiring UNESCO Global Geopark involves an 'on ground' assessment of the feasibility of any proposal brought forward by any grouping including government agencies. With compelling regional development imperatives in mind, two such proposals, the Etheridge region of Far North Queensland (some 40,000 square kilometres in area) and the Warrumbungle region in Northwest NSW (some 27,000 square kilometres in area) have been subject to intensive assessment during 2017.
UNESCO Global Geoparks are 'single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development. A UNESCO Global Geopark uses its geological heritage, in connection with all other aspects of the area's natural and cultural heritage, to enhance awareness and understanding of key issues facing society, such as using our earth's resources sustainably, mitigating the effects of climate change and reducing natural disasters-related risks'.
By raising awareness of the importance of the area's geological heritage in history and society today, UNESCO Global Geoparks provides local people with a sense of pride in their region and strengthens their identification with the area. The creation of innovative local enterprises, new jobs and high quality training courses is stimulated as new sources of revenue are generated through geotourism, while the geological resources of the area are protected.
Of importance in the process is the realisation that 'while a UNESCO Global Geopark must demonstrate geological heritage of international significance, the purpose of a UNESCO Global Geopark is to explore, develop and celebrate the links between that geological heritage and all other aspects of the area's natural, cultural and intangible heritages.' In this context, the first task of the proponent is to address the issue of geological heritage of 'international significance'. Recently, the Governing Council of the GSA has assigned the Geotourism Standing Committee the role of assessing the international geological merit of the current (and any future) pre-aspiring UNESCO global geopark proposals, based on the advice provided by the appointed geoscience/mining heritage reference groups, provided that any assessments are to be endorsed by the Governing Council before they are made external.
What defines a National Landscape?
In Australia a somewhat equivalent land use to geoparks is the former Australian National Landscape (ANL) Programme. This government initiative has been led until recently by a partnership of Parks Australia and Tourism Australia, but embracing strong local development of strategies and activities. The programme has represented a national long term strategic approach to tourism and conservation which aims to highlight the value of our remarkable natural and cultural environments as tourism assets, improving the quality of visitor experiences in those regions, and in turn, increasing support for their conservation. There are now 16 designated National Landscapes in Australia. With its integrative focus on landscapes as a whole, the development of geotourism within each landscape aligns with the core focus and sustainable development of each landscape region.
Designated Australian National Landscapes are similar to geoparks in that they
• have very similar goals relating to local development, education and experiential tourism (i.e. ‘geotourism’); and
• share the concept of delineating boundaries defined by visitor experiences and are not based on any existing land management boundaries.
However, designated national landscapes do not focus on fostering geoconservation, but have a broader ‘natural heritage’ remit. Moreover, the potential exists for individual Australian National Landscapes to seek geopark branding should there be a view that the global branding would enhance the geoscience attractiveness of these areas for international visitors and/or enhance regional development opportunities for state/territory governments.