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Political dynamics and governance of World Heritage ecosystems

An Author Correction to this article was published on 03 August 2020

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Political dynamics across scales are often overlooked in the design, implementation and evaluation of environmental governance. We provide new evidence to explain how interactions between international organizations and national governments shape environmental governance and outcomes for 238 World Heritage ecosystems, on the basis of a new intervention–response–outcome typology. We analyse interactions between the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and 102 national governments responsible for implementing ecosystem protection under the World Heritage Convention between 1972 and 2019. We combine data on the reporting, deliberation and certification of individual ecosystem-level threats, with data on national governance quality, economic complexity and key stakeholder perspectives. We find that the extent of threatened ecosystems is seriously underestimated and that efforts to formally certify threatened ecosystems are often resisted by national governments. A range of responses to international intervention, including both productive and counterproductive responses, generates material impacts at the ecosystem level. Counterproductive responses occur in nations dependent on limited high-value natural resource industries, irrespective of overall level of economic development. We identify new political approaches to improve environmental governance, including how to overcome the problem of regulatory capture. Our findings inform how we can better anticipate and account for political dynamics in environmental governance.

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Fig. 1: Evolution of WH in Danger listings over time for natural WH sites.
Fig. 2: Unrecognized extent of threats for natural WH sites.
Fig. 3: Governance of WH-listed ecosystems is a function of UNESCO intervention and national response.
Fig. 4: Governance threats discounted in social and institutional threat reporting by UNESCO 1972–2018.
Fig. 5: National responses according to economic complexity and natural resource dependency.

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Data availability

Findings are derived from the following primary and secondary data sources: in-depth, confidential stratified and key-informant interviews (n = 32 interviews), threat and certification data for natural WH sites (n = 238 sites), documentary analysis (n = 3,099 documents) and economic and governance data (n = 102 countries) (Supplementary Fig. 1). The data that support the findings of this study (excluding confidential interviews) are available from the corresponding author upon request. Interview results are confidential in accordance with James Cook University ethics approval no. H6149. A detailed explanation of methods is available in the Methods.

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This project received ethics approval from James Cook University (no. H6149) and was supported by the Australian Research Council. The authors thank G. Cumming, L. McHugh, P. Cohen, J. Day and S. Lawless for their helpful comments and suggestions and project interviewees and key informants for their insightful interview responses.

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Authors and Affiliations



T.H.M. conceived the idea and led the study design. W.N.A., K.B., M.C.L. and T.P.H. contributed analytic concepts and ideas. T.H.M., M.H. and C.H. collected, collated and analysed the qualitative and quantitative data. All authors drafted, reviewed and edited the paper.

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Correspondence to T. H. Morrison.

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Supplementary Fig. 1, Tables 1 and 2.

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Morrison, T.H., Adger, W.N., Brown, K. et al. Political dynamics and governance of World Heritage ecosystems. Nat Sustain 3, 947–955 (2020).

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