By Robin Van Auken on Volunteer Forever

There are few things that people agree upon, but protecting special places and things is one of them. Deciding exactly what makes a landmark or area important because of its cultural, historical, or scientific significance is the quest of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, also known as UNESCO.

Since 1972, UNESCO has been charged with the task of judging whether a place is worthy of its World Heritage Site classification. There are three types: natural, cultural, and mixed sites that are of outstanding universal value, and there are 1,037 of these sites designated by UNESCO.

In addition to being of universal value, a site must meet at least one of 10 criteria. These are:

  1. To represent a masterpiece of human creative genius
  2. To exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design
  3. To bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared
  4. To be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history
  5. To be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change
  6. To be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria)
  7. To contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance
  8. To be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features
  9. To be outstanding examples representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals
  10. To contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation

A cultural site can be ancient ruins, historical structures, buildings, cities, monumental sculptures, and even paintings. Natural sites include places such as deserts, forests, islands, lakes, monuments, mountains, and wilderness areas. These are designated as World Heritage Sites for the collective interests of humanity.

But, World Heritage Sites aren’t only cultural achievements or natural places – they can be mixed accomplishments of humanity or evidence of our intellectual history. For example, Mexican food is so loved by the world that it is a cultural treasure and has been added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. That’s right – tacos are that important!

If you’re a list maker, then you’ve probably already started a list of spectacular places you want to visit, but are these places World Heritage Sites? Now that you know how important they are, and how difficult the criteria is to nominate one, perhaps you’ll add a World Heritage Site to your “To Visit” list. While you’re at it, do something meaningful while you’re there.

Consider volunteering on a conservation project that helps protect a World Heritage Site for future generations. Or that helps to interpret its history. Sign up for an English teaching program that places you with indigenous people at a World Heritage Site and preserves their culture, while helping them to develop sustainable livelihoods in ecotourism. Intern with an NGO and create a buzz about a place. Or, simply visit Mexico on a gap year and enjoy the enchiladas.

With more than 1,000 World Heritage Sites (and examples of Intangible Cultural Heritage), chances are you can find a perfect spot for enriching your mind and soul. Take a look at the sampling of awesome projects at amazing places and select one to visit today!


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