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Heritage status could safeguard fossil beds

It is alarming that phosphate mining in Weng'an in southwest China has destroyed important Late Precambrian fossil beds from around 600 million years ago (Nature 544, 403; 2017). We suggest that scientists campaign for Weng'an to be recognized as a World Heritage Site under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Developing such fossil sites for research and sustainable tourism could help to offset the costs of reducing mining activity.

Weng'an county is poor — the average household income was 27% below the national average in 2015. Mining generates more than 60% of the county's annual revenue. Stopping unregulated mining would entail costly worker compensation and rehabilitation. Polluted sites would also need to be cleaned up.

Happily, lessons can be learnt from a fossil site some 700 kilometres away, the Chengjiang Cambrian Lagerstätte (see D.-G. Shu et al. Nature 414, 419–424; 2001). This saw a similar conflict around 17 years ago. After a lengthy dispute, the site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012, thanks to interventions by and support from domestic and international scientists. Mining stopped and more than 7 million tourists visited the site and nearby Fuxian Lake in 2016. The attraction last year generated about 3.8 billion yuan (US$0.6 billion).

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Correspondence to Hong Yang.

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Yang, H., Ma, M. & Flower, R. Heritage status could safeguard fossil beds. Nature 546, 210 (2017).

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