Congratulations Botswana! On June 22, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the Okavango Delta the 1000th World Heritage Site. The Okavango Delta now joins that august list of the world’s most special places. The World Heritage global roster includes 911 natural and cultural places, such as the Egyptian pyramids and the Taj Mahal, as well as the world’s most important national parks: the Serengeti, Mount Kilimanjaro, Yellowstone, and Mount Everest. The United States is proud to have supported Botswana’s World Heritage Site nomination by providing resources and expertise for both community outreach and planning activities. Over the past two years during my tenure in Botswana I have had the privilege of visiting the Okavango Delta numerous times and experiencing its extraordinary wildlife and natural beauty – with over 530 bird species, 160 mammal species, and thousands of plants. Simply put, there is no place like it on earth.
The World Heritage Site designation will benefit Botswana in multiple ways. It will not only confer prestige and bring honor to the nation, it also promises direct economic benefits. Tourism, primarily ecotourism, is already a major engine of growth in Botswana. It comprises almost 10% of Botswana’s gross domestic product and provides 10% of the nation’s employment. The World Heritage Site designation will maximize the Okavango Delta’s name recognition among international travelers, and by association will undoubtedly increase visitation at Botswana’s other prominent natural attractions, such as the Chobe National Park, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the Kalagadi TransFrontier Park, and the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. Properly managed, the Okavango Delta and its partner attractions will generate enormous revenue for the people of Botswana for generations to come.
The designation also imposes serious obligations. Botswana has now committed to the global community that it will protect the Okavango Delta in perpetuity for the benefit of all humanity. Protection does not preclude sustainable use of the Delta’s resources, but sustainable development, almost by definition, occurs on a scale that goes well beyond the scope of the World Heritage Site itself. This requires that management and planning of this precious resource be integrated into district and eventually, regional strategies. Simply stated, sustainable development implies the recognition that activities taking place outside the World Heritage Site’s “core” in its designated buffer area have the potential to severely impact, and possibly even destroy the Delta. Thus, this obligation to protect and sustainably manage the Delta is a sizeable one. It will require authorities to put long-term conservation goals above possible short-term economic gains. Of course, putting these long-term conservation goals first will ensure long-term economic benefits for Botswana that far out value any short-term economic benefits that might come from setting aside conservation goals.
The U.S. knows from personal experience how difficult it is to manage a World Heritage wetland site. We were proud and delighted when the Everglades National Park, “America’s Okavango Delta”, was designated a World Heritage Site in 1977. However, because we did not implement a comprehensive management plan for the entire ecosystem, particularly its buffer zone, the entire site suffered. We allowed so much agriculture, mining, and human settlement in the buffer zone that it compromised the “core”. The core wetland began to dry up, and the remaining waters became polluted. Neighboring communities lacked clean water, and wildlife numbers decreased. As a result, in 1993 the World Heritage Council inscribed the Everglades on the List of World Heritage in Danger, and required a detailed management plan for the wetlands recovery. Twenty years later we are midway through a 40 year, $19.5 billion dollar Everglades remediation plan. We learned the hard way that obtaining the World Heritage Site designation is the easy part: the real challenge is to maintain the site’s integrity over time.
Although mismanagement of the U.S. Everglades produced an environmental disaster, the 20 years of ecological and institutional expertise we have accrued during the remediation process constitute valuable lessons learned that we would like to share with our Batswana colleagues. We have learned that multiple government agencies, environment groups, and local communities must work together to sustainably manage a complex wetland ecosystem. We learned that to save the core area, you must also protect the buffer. And we learned the hard way that the costs of preventing environmental damage are far lower than the costs of rehabilitation or environmental repair. We once again congratulate Botswana on this great achievement, and hope we can continue to work together to learn from our mistakes, and manage the Okavango Delta for the economic benefit of Batswana and the enjoyment and appreciation of a grateful global community for many generations to come.
*This is a statement from the US Embassy in Gaborone.