UNESCO + Geoparks – together at last

Caspar David Freidrich, ‘Woman before the Rising Sun (Woman before the Setting Sun)’ 1818 (Museum Folkwang, Essen). Photo by The Yorck Project (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

After almost a decade of dating, UNESCO and the Global Geoparks Network are engaged, and have finally set the date for their wedding. Here at Touch TD we are really happy about it, and we’re going to tell you why.

Earlier in April the UNESCO Executive Board sat for its 196th session where it made the recommendation for the UNESCO General Conference in November 2015, that geoparks should sit within a restructured earth sciences programme. The new structure will be known by the title of the International Geoscience & Geoparks Programme (IGGP). All that’s needed to seal the deal is for the member states to vote through that recommendation. It will still be a nervous few months for the Geoparks family, particularly in the knowledge of past false starts, but the ceremony in November will represent a new and important phase for a remarkable endeavor that first set sail in the late 1990s.

So, what is a Geopark, anyway?

This has long been the challenge for this slightly complex, mulit-pronged effort to place and popularise geological heritage and conservation in the public eye. Rather than add to the growing number of attempts to explain the term in less than 10,000 words, for a full and rigorous explanation as to what geoparks are all about, I’m going to steer you over to the European Geoparks Network pages. There you can relax and mull over the nuances of the concept, its network and if you so wish, the recipe for ‘how to make a geopark’. Or better still, you could visit a geopark and make up your own definition.

In this blog, we present a snap shot of the beasty. Then we’ll point in some directions where we think the super brand of UNESCO may take its first new offspring since 1972, and what challenges that could bring.

  • Geoparks are a geological juggling team, keeping conservation – education – sustainable development (especially via geotourism) up in the air all at the same time. Covering an area of roughly several hundreds to several thousands of square kilometers.
  • Geoparks begin with inspiring geology and draw together numerous elements of physical, environmental and cultural heritage within a defined territory. Interwoven, these provide a complete perspective of a geopark’s landscapes.
  • Geoparks should be founded by a grouping that springs from that location’s grassroots. In turn that core is supported by national conservation and heritage organisations, including the respective UNESCO national commission.
  • Geoparks don’t sit in isolation. Each territory is an active partner in a regional and worldwide network of geoparks.

In a nutshell, geoparks share a unifying philosophy that guides how to manage the diverse stories that a landscape can tell us. The geoparks network brings together a global anthology of such stories, which together express humankind’s (re)connections with its geological roots.

Looking to the future

Now, let’s look to the future and speculate where this marriage to UNESCO might take things for the geopark family?

You don’t need specialized GIS applications to see that geoparks are at present heavily stacked in two corners, Europe and East Asia. That means for the Geoparks Network (GGN) to be truly global, there has to be a lot of awareness and capacity building for Geoparks to maintain significant growth in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

Geology & Society

Foremost, there is a need to bring together diverse voices and experiences that reach beyond the earth sciences communities alone. As Geoparks look to present all facets of heritage, I think there is an even greater need for individuals and groups to break outside of their disciplinary bunkers. It is a tale of geology AND society. That means earth and social sciences working together. In turn civil society and governmental structures, bottom up and top down segments, also need to sing from the same sheet and formulate a collective approach.

That’s a big enough ask in strong economies and stable political environments. Drawing those partnerships together in geologically rich corners of Latin America, Africa or the Middle East will be a challenge if geoparks are truly to become global.

A 3-way balance

The ideal position promoted by the Geoparks movement, would be for a territory to find a three-way balance between the core pillars of conservation, education and sustainable development. However, with local circumstances varying dramatically around each geopark territory, it comes as no surprise that a particular preference or bias is often taken by each managing consortium.

For instance, many geoparks in Japan, which sits on a highly active tectonic foundation, are utilized to convey strongly educational and awareness building messages about geological hazards. The message from Chinese Geoparks is the search for a pathway to sustainable development in rural corners of provinces that have not hitched the whole ride on the Chinese economic boom. They do however possess rich geological and environmental resources.

Nonetheless, as long as the other two remaining components are not totally neglected, then the model does offer a helpful degree of flexibility. After all, the relationship between the earth sciences and society is clearly not one-dimensional. Rising global populations and climate change impacts, have prompted an ever more urgent push towards addressing disaster risk reduction (DRR). Meanwhile, the demands of existing and newly emerging economies places an enormous strain on the need to sustainably manage the earth’s natural resources. Geoparks sometimes find themselves right on this front line with the extractive industries as they seek to popularise geological science and understanding, whilst simultaneously promote sustainable approaches for development. Building a strategy that can respond to such a range of issues is thus not only advantageous, but essential.

Geopark consultancy with Touch TD

Here at Touch TD we draw on a diverse skill-set and experience from across the earth and social sciences. Through our web of friends and associates we construct ideas and creative responses that draw on data from inside and outside of the geoparks community. You get the best of both worlds, with a well-worked balance between internal and external perspectives.

We’d love to hear your views on this blog and the challenges facing geoparks in the coming period (anthropocene?)

Drop us a line via our contact page or Tweet us a reply @TouchTD.