Dialogue between Małgorzata Górska and Hans Cosmas Ngoteya
50 Minds for the Next 50. Safeguarding Heritage against Climate Crisis Session
Conservationist and environmental activist
Hans Cosmas Ngoteya
Wildlife photographer, filmmaker and conservationist
Vision for the Next 50
In the Next 50… We immediately take action to stop harmful infrastructure projects, which do not benefit society and nature. We have a law that allows us to recognize, conserve and safeguard natural heritage for its different values.
In the Next 50… We have a specific law that protects heritage sites and we train people to stand and support those legal institutions. We also use film and photography to effectively promote heritage values to many people.
Malgorzata Gorska and Hans Cosmas Ngoteya spoke about their experiences in protecting natural habitats and possible methods for natural heritage preservation. They both envision the next 50 years with specific legal institutions that can immediately respond to the climate crisis and train people to safeguard biodiversity. Malgorzata spoke about natural habitats and how they can bring about benefits to humanity, whose high value balances infrastructure development and heritage preservation. As a photographer and filmmaker, Ngoteya spoke of film and photography as effective tools to promote the values of heritage to a wider audience. He also shed light on the role of youth whose quick minds, knowledge and ideas can help solve the challenges faced by their communities and heritage sites.
How can a sustainable relationship be achieved between infrastructure development and heritage protection in the next 50 years?
In my opinion, this is one of the most serious challenges we face in these times of the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis. It is very difficult because we generally want both: to have the high-tech infrastructure and the nice natural heritage, but often it’s not possible to combine both. But if we are open to solutions that can reconcile these two needs, we can find a way. I was involved for 20 years in the successful campaign to protect biodiversity in Poland. Sometimes the win-win solution is possible even though there are still many challenges and battles in the development of infrastructure and natural heritage protection.
More than 10 years ago there was a big public campaign to change the route of an international road that was planned through my region in Poland. Bridges were planned to cross the unique wetlands and marshes in Rospuda Valley. With the involvement of many different interest groups – scientists, activists, the media and others – it was decided to change the route to save this unique heritage, which today is a tourist attraction and a well-known biodiversity hotspot. However, other challenges remain. In the region where I live, next to the Biebrza National Park, which is also a wetland habitat, there is another plan to construct an expressway through the wetlands. A new study has shown that such large infrastructure is simply not justified, threatening the high value of the park’s nature.
The threat caused by the dams to nature, the rivers and society as a whole has already been mentioned. Unfortunately, in Poland, there is an existing plan to construct an inland waterway to connect the Baltic Sea from the Black Sea in Ukraine. This means that our beautiful wild rivers, including the Vistula River, called the ‘Queen of Polish rivers’, is going to be transformed into a canal with a cascade of dams. According to recent analysis, a total of 55 legally protected national areas and 72 international areas are found along the route of the planned waterway.
So the scale of the potential damage in Poland, Belarus and in Ukraine is dramatic. These are examples of the infrastructure projects that are still planned. I think we first need to understand why it’s important to make wise decisions and ask ourselves: What infrastructure do we really need and where can we locate the infrastructure in order not to damage the natural habitat? In cases where the environmental costs cannot be compensated, we simply must withdraw from such projects.
We must immediately change our attitude towards natural habitats and treat them as having a very high value. We need to consider the natural habitat for humanity’s needs. We must immediately take action. We not only need high-level decisions at meetings of global leaders, we also need to take action. We simply do not have much time for discussions. One example of immediate action is to simply stop the infrastructure projects that are not beneficial to society and nature. In fact, they have the opposite effect, they may cause irreversible damage. However, if there is a will, and we really consider the natural habitat as the basis for humanity, then it’s possible to find a good solution.
However, I'm not very optimistic having seen the enormous scale of projects that are damaging to natural habitats. So we urgently need to change our attitude for the sake of nature, biodiversity and our environment.
Thank you Malgorzata. I asked this question because we are facing the biggest challenge in three Tanzanian World Heritage sites, in the Serengeti, Ngorongoro and the Selous Game Reserve. For example, in Ngorongoro they have to translocate people. That's something no one believed would happen. They have started building big infrastructure inside the Ngorongoro crater, a very sensitive place, and the government therefore decided to remove people.
We also have a problem in the Selous Game Reserve as well as in the Serengeti, with a proposal to pass through the park, which will affect the migration of wild animals. So I can relate a lot to the question. Another question is: What role should legal institutions play in safeguarding natural heritage?
I heard about your case concerning the route in Serengeti National Park. It shows how nature sanctuaries are still not correctly respected. It's the same with the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and in Poland where we have the last piece of lowland primeval forest in Europe, the Białowieża forest, which is still not given the consideration it deserves and is inadequately protected. As for the role of legal institutions, for me, their role is very clear and simple. If a public institution is established to safeguard the natural environment, they simply have to play their role and do what’s necessary.
But of course life is life and this is not always the reality but, first of all, we need a law that allows us to recognize, conserve and safeguard the natural heritage for different values: for the existence of biodiversity and its right to exist, and also for the values, functions and ecosystem services that biodiversity provides to humans. We have this for free, for example, flood control, carbon storage, food, as well as recreational value. We have national laws on nature and we also have European Union nature directives, and of course the World Heritage Convention. If these laws are contravened then the legal institutions must step in without delay step and be the voice for nature and the natural habitat. It is also the future of humanity in terms of the climate and biodiversity crises.
In the example of the planned route through the marshes of the Rospuda Valley, I'm fully convinced that if the Polish courts, as well as the European institutions, had not stepped in to protect these marshes, they would have been destroyed by the road construction.
For the moment, the natural value of the site is well recognized. I think that the Rospuda Valley with its unique marshes should be placed on the RAMSAR list of globally important wetland sites because it is such a unique area. I also think that UNESCO has a very important role to play.
As I mentioned, in Poland, very close to the place where I live, there is the last remaining lowland primeval forest in Europe, the Białowieża forest. Today, the forest is increasingly threatened by a new infrastructure, the construction of a border wall, fragmenting the forest into two separate parts between Poland and Belarus. Huge traffic of heavy lorries with building materials are now passing through the forest. This is another threat to this unique place. Another continuous threat, though not a new one, is timber extraction from the forest, which is more than is needed by local people. Simply put, we are selling our treasure in Poland. The Białowieża forest is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. So it is time for UNESCO to step in to protect it.
In my opinion, we simply need to encourage the legal institutions and expect them to act to stop the damaging infrastructure projects and to save natural heritage. We need the political and organizational will to take action.
Thank you so much for your input on that point. World Heritage sites are indeed unique places around the world. I believe they should have a specific law to protect them. Maybe it already exists, but I'm sure that most legal institutions do not know about it. If these laws exist, maybe UNESCO should share this knowledge so that these legal institutions can understand the uniqueness of these places and the need to protect them given their status as World Heritage sites, although other biodiversity or conservation areas are also important. I believe that legal institutions need to have a specific law that protects these sites and train people to stand and support those laws. I've attended several cases for the Ngorongoro, the Serengeti and the Selous Game Reserve, and they are treated as normal wildlife areas. They overlook the point that these places are unique. Legal institutions simply don't recognize the uniqueness of these heritage sites.
My last question: What are the most important natural habitats in your country which support the fight against climate change, and are they protected?
That's a very good question. Considering that Poland is located in central Europe, which is a well-developed part of the world, we do still have many natural habitats. The important habitats that help us combat the climate crisis are wetlands, including peat lands, which are excellent stores of carbon, and of course the old forests in the Polish mountains and in the Białowieża forest. I would love for them to be protected so that they can help us mitigate the effects of climate change. However, we still need to do a lot to prevent the draining of peat lands, the conversion of wild rivers into navigation channels, or the logging of old forests for commercial use.
I'd like to ask you Hans, as a great photographer, what in your opinion is the power of photography and films in heritage protection and promotion? I think that without seeing the beauty and value of natural sites, we simply cannot feel them in our hearts as something we want to save.
We have come 50 years after the World Heritage Convention. Now we are looking at the next 50 years. Things have changed a lot. Phones were once landlines, now people use smartphones. The internet is everywhere and people no longer get their news from magazines or papers, they don't have time to read articles. People need things that capture their attention immediately and this is where the power of photography and film comes in, in promoting these natural heritage sites.
In the next 50 years, UNESCO could put in place best strategies to see how to use film photography effectively. For example, when I was working in conservation education, I ran conservation film nights where I would show films to communities to get their feedback. A lot more engagement came after they watched the film compared to the classes. In the classes I talked to them about conservation but listening and talking can be boring. However, moving images gets them involved.
That's one reason why I actually decided to become a wildlife filmmaker and photographer because I saw this as a great tool to reach out to a wider audience. Now with the internet, everyone has a smartphone and it is now very cheap. If someone has Instagram, that is everything. For me, this is the most powerful way of promoting these natural heritage sites compared to, say, scientists who are used to writing articles directed to specific groups of people but not to the general public.
Social media attracts everyone, and everyone wants to be entertained right now. If you send people an article that is 30 pages, they will not read it, even if it contains important information. But if your message is one or three minutes long and is a film or story about a certain place, someone will click to watch it and share it, so it’s education and entertainment at the same time. That's how important photography and filmmaking are.
The picture is usually important to young people. You’re a firm believer that young people can take the lead in environmental protection and in combating the climate crisis. How can they lead the movement to save their future?
Based on my own experience as a young leader, conservationist and filmmaker, I see that life is changing very fast and information is now within the hands of the youth. They have smartphones and the tools to easily share knowledge and search what is happening now in Belarus or Poland, for example. Poland is adapting and has quick judgement to search for and implement different solutions. Where I come from, most of the time, we are not involved in decision-making. In my tradition, when you are young, you're not supposed to challenge nor are you given the opportunity to challenge. But the youth are the ones who are curious and spend a lot of time studying the world around them, so it is easy to adopt their knowledge and ideas. They can be used to solve the different challenges in the community or in a specific heritage site. For example, I work with National Geographic, which has gathered a lot of our ideas, and is right now helping to change conservation. The National Geographic African youth coordinator is a young person and he's more engaged and has many ideas and time to bring people together. So we need that energy to focus on this serious issue, and we are very happy about it.
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Five dialogue sessions covering five themes take place in 2022, each joined by thinkers in paired dialogue from diverse regions. The interdisciplinary dialogues inspire new visions for the next 50 years of World Heritage.