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12 Cultural Sites in Developing World Listed as Most Threatened

Women sell fruits and vegetables in front of a damaged house in Jacmel, Haiti, after the earthquake in January. The Global Heritage Fund says Jacmel is one of the world’s last historic cities of steel and iron architecture.
Women sell fruits and vegetables in front of a damaged house in Jacmel, Haiti, after the earthquake in January. The Global Heritage Fund says Jacmel is one of the world’s last historic cities of steel and iron architecture.

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BOB DOUGHTY: I’m Bob Doughty.

FAITH LAPIDUS: And I’m Faith Lapidus with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. The Global Heritage Fund organization recently released a list of cultural treasures in the developing world that are in danger of disappearing.

These “On the Verge” places face many threats. They include war and conflict, development pressures, poor supervision, stealing and misuse by visitors.

The Global Heritage Fund says these places are important because they are records of our human civilization. And the group says countries can learn to use these treasures to help support responsible development in the future.


BOB DOUGHTY: The Global Heritage Fund says globalization has created an international culture that is about sameness. But the endangered places it is trying to protect represent the rich differences of human culture throughout history.

The group says there are more than two hundred places around the developing world that are at serious risk. In a new report, the fund has chosen twelve places that are the most threatened.

The ruins of a church in Ani, Turkey
The ruins of a church in Ani, Turkey

FAITH LAPIDUS: One of these is Ani, a city in Turkey near the border with Armenia. This ancient city is now mostly in ruins. But it was once the capital of a large and powerful Armenian kingdom.

Ani’s ruined buildings tell an important story about the Armenian culture that existed there during the tenth and eleventh centuries. The city contains many fine examples of religious and civil buildings.

But these buildings have long been damaged by robbers. Experts say the Turkish government has done little to protect the buildings and many are at risk of collapse.

BOB DOUGHTY: The town of Lamu is one of the oldest and best-kept traditional Swahili settlements in East Africa. Lamu is on an island of the same name, off the coast of Kenya. Lamu’s buildings are made of coral stone and wood from mangrove forests.

Ancient settlements on this island date as far back as the eighth century.

Lamu was once a very important trading center in East Africa. It is also important for its special Islamic culture and celebrations. This ancient city became part of the United Nations World Heritage list in two thousand one. But it still faces the threats of modern development, such as the possible building of a modern port nearby.

Several old buildings in town are also in danger of collapsing.

FAITH LAPIDUS: The town of Maluti in India is known for its many religious buildings which date back to the seventeen hundreds. Pala rulers built the Maluti Temples to honor their gods including Shiva, Durga and Kali.

Many of the temples have fallen apart, and rainwater has further weakened those that are still standing. If repaired, these beautiful buildings could offer this small town an important source of income.

Other endangered places include the ancient city of Ninevah in northern Iraq, the Sans-Souci palace in Haiti, and the former capital of Ayutthaya in Thailand.


BOB DOUGHTY: The Global Heritage Fund is a nonprofit organization based in California. Its goal is to protect places of cultural importance in developing countries.

The group says it pays attention to developing countries because they often have few resources to protect places of cultural importance. And, other major cultural organizations often pay more attention to protecting places in the developed world.

For example, the fund points out that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has forty-five World Heritage places in Italy. UNESCO has forty-two in Spain. But Peru, famous for its ancient Incan buildings, has only nine World Heritage Places. Guatemala has only three.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Many of the Global Heritage Fund’s efforts help communities learn how best to protect their cultural treasures. The fund says it also aims to show how countries can use these places to support economic growth.

The organization has developed a protection method using local communities, science and partnerships with other groups.

The Global Heritage Fund recently published a report called “Saving Our Vanishing Heritage.” The report has several goals. One is to raise public awareness about the threats to historical places around the world.

The fund says the problem is an international crisis that is equal to environmental destruction around the world. Another goal of the report is to identify inventive technologies to help solve the crisis. The report also aims to increase funding to these projects through partnerships between public and private groups.

BOB DOUGHTY: The Global Heritage Fund says its new report attempts to place a value on cultural places so that they can also be considered as economic resources. The group says thinking of the cultural places in economic terms can help to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals of ending poverty.

It also estimates that by two thousand twenty five, these places of cultural importance could produce one hundred billion dollar a year in income for developing countries.

Protecting a cultural place has a big effect on local economies by creating jobs and bringing new life to city areas. Once a place of cultural importance begins to attract visitors, property values increase and small businesses find new markets.

But the Global Heritage Fund says increasing the number of visitors to an area must be done responsibly. Controls and policies must be established to avoid overuse.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Both the Global Heritage Fund and UNESCO work toward protecting historical places. UNESCO’s World Heritage list includes over nine hundred natural or cultural places considered to have universal value.

However, UNESCO has very little money in its budget to pay for protecting historical places. UNESCO does provide professional help and training to help countries and communities create and maintain programs.

BOB DOUGHTY: Experts say that being selected for the UNESCO World Heritage List can bring needed aid as well as problems. Once a place of cultural importance makes the list, it can become so popular with visitors that the goal of protection fails.

UNESCO has said that business goals aimed at increasing visitors often end up shaping policies instead of protection goals. Other critics say there are so many places on UNESCO’s World Heritage list that the organization can no longer be very effective.

Still, UNESCO plays a very important role in bringing attention to culturally and historically important places around the world.


FAITH LAPIDUS: One of the Global Heritage Fund’s current projects is in Guatemala’s Mirador Basin. This area in northern Guatemala contains several important examples of ancient Mayan settlements. These include the Mayan cities of El Mirador, Nakbe, Tintal and Wakna.

The many buildings are surrounded by forest. Centuries of tree growth have covered the pyramids and religious buildings. These buildings provide some of the finest examples of the early part of the Mayan civilization.

But this area is in danger from robbers and people cutting trees illegally. Also, over the past ten years, much of the natural environment in the Mirador area has been destroyed by fires. The Global Heritage Fund says over seventy percent of the environment in this area has been lost in the past ten years.

US archaeologist Richard Hansen shows a limestone frieze found at El Mirador archaeological site
US archaeologist Richard Hansen shows a limestone frieze found at El Mirador archaeological site

BOB DOUGHTY: The Global Heritage Fund has three main goals for its Mirador project. One is helping the Guatemalan government obtain UNESCO recognition. Another is establishing permanent protection for the area. And the third is working to make the area a sustainable protected area within ten years.

To meet these goals, the Global Heritage Fund is working with the Guatemalan government to gain support for its protection plan. Money from The fund will go toward restoring the buildings of El Mirador and mapping and exploring newly discovered buildings.

The organization is also paying to train local guides on how to stop theft and illegal tree-cutting. Educational programs are helping to give people in the area the skills they need to have jobs that do not endanger this protected area.

The United States and Guatemalan governments, area nonprofit organizations and private donors have given money to help support the Mirador project.

FAITH LAPIDUS: The Global Heritage Fund says we have a duty to the people of the past, present and future to make sure we do not lose these examples of human history.

And it says every country, organization and individual can play a role in helping to protect this rich history.

BOB DOUGHTY: This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Bob Doughty.

FAITH LAPIDUS: And I’m Faith Lapidus. Visit us online at or on Facebook or Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.