Why UNESCO can’t save Fayoum’s Gebel Qatrani

Much has been written, shot and discussed about the wealth of Gebel Qatrani, an area located on the North of Lake Qarun in the Fayoum Oasis, especially since the Amer Group announced its intention last December to create a “Porto Fayoum” resort there.

Exceptional archaeological, paleontological and geological treasures have been dug up in this previously undeveloped desert area that belongs to the Lake Qarun Protected Area. Some of the most outstanding finds in Gebel Qatrani are fossils of early apes, hominids (great apes), birds, whale skulls and crocodiles.

The environmentalists and the Nature Conservation Egypt NGOs behind the “No Porto Fayoum” campaign have repeatedly referred to the fact that Gebel Qatrani appears on the tentative list of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites (WHS), and have been surprised by the silence of the National UNESCO Committee regarding the potential destruction of the site by the real estate developer, Amer Group. 

UNESCO has a well-established system for adding new sites to its World Heritage list: any country can send a list of sites for consideration, but for the site to be examined closely and studied by the UNESCO team, in-depth information depicting the specific features of the site and its global importance must be submitted.

Egypt’s National UNESCO Committee – a body under the authority of the Ministry of Higher Education — tried to start that process in 2005, when it brought together about 30 academics, scientists, geologists, archaeologists, paleontologists, eco-tourism specialists and a botanist in an attempt to set up a management plan for the area so that Gebel Qatrani would qualify for inclusion on the UNESCO list, but has thus far been unsuccessful.

The committee began working on the application in 2005, two years after Wadi al-Hitan had been named a World Heritage Site following recommendations from the World Heritage Center and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — the body that evaluates sites for UNESCO.

At that time, UNESCO issued a recommendation to extend the borders of Wadi al-Hitan to include Gebel Qatrani, according to Veronique Dauge, the head of the Arab department within UNESCO’s World Heritage Center in Paris.

“We recommended the inclusion of Gebel Qatrani within Wadi al-Hitan when the latter became an official WHS,” she said, insisting that UNESCO can only intervene to protect areas that are already registered World Heritage Sites and not those that are under consideration.

If the site only appears on the tentative list, there is nothing UNESCO can do to preserve it from any type of destruction.

She explained that when a country presents a site on its tentative list, it typically indicates the country's intention to propose it as a heritage site in the near future, but until now UNESCO has not received an application from Egypt to make Gebel Qatrani an official candidate.

Samir Ghabbour, emeritus professor in the Natural Resources Department at Cairo University, is the leader of the National UNESCO Committee, which presented its first proposal to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) in 2006.

“This proposal was rejected by the Ministry of Environment because it was a collection of nonsense,” exclaimed Mostafa Foda, who is an advisor for the EEAA. “Everything was confused and ill-organized in this file, and I think this had to do with the fact that these people are academics and they could not come up with an efficient management plan."

No other proposals were submitted to the EEAA after this first attempt, and very little information on the state of the file leaked from the committee. According to an online resume Ghabbour posted in March 2010, at the time he was still “organizing the preparation of the nomination file and management plan of the Gebel Qatrani area, Fayoum governorate, for its inscription on the World Heritage List of UNESCO.”

When he talked to Al-Masry Al-Youm a few days ago, though, Ghabbour was unwilling to disclose the progress of the application, explaining, “Until the Tourism Development Authority (TDA) and the EEAA find a solution to their ongoing dispute regarding the site, the document I am working on will be on hold.”

Mohamed al-Khatib is an environment and eco-tourism planner who belonged to the National UNESCO team. He refuted information found online that this committee received funding from UNESCO to produce a management plan and study a further integration of Gebel Qatrani within the borders of Wadi al-Hitan.

“People were volunteering, this is also why so many desertions happened after only two meetings of the committee,” he said, accusing Ghabbour of intentionally ignoring a number of contributions, which led to another wave of people leaving the committee.

Hala Barakat, deputy director for Natural and Intangible Heritage of Cultnat (Center for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage), is also a member of this National Committee as a botanist. She explains that she soon stopped attending the meetings because there is almost no vegetation in this area and only three species of plants.

She said that although her skills as a botanist were not essential to the preparation of the file, “Cultnat contributed to this report by including the description of two archaeological sites in Gebel Qatrani: Dimai and Qasr al-Sagha.”

Although no one is questioning the global importance of Gebel Qatrani, which contains one of the world’s richest fossil records and is thus essential for understanding the evolution of humans and other mammals, some are not quite convinced about the plan to turn it into a World Heritage Site, mainly for management reasons.

Mostafa Foda explains that extending the borders of Wadi al-Hitan to include Gebel Qatrani is not feasible because agricultural lands and quarries exist between the two. Concerned, he explains, “It is easy to declare a place a World Heritage Site, but if you don’t have proper management, trained staff and resources it amounts to nothing.”

Khatib also shares this point of view, saying, “it is not enough to build boundaries around a new World Heritage Site and leave it, and clearly at this point we don’t have a management plan ready, neither do we have the resources to pay for rangers to patrol the area.”

For some, the only positive aspect of the immediate inclusion of Gebel Qatrani on the UNESCO list is that it would give environmentalists the backing of a respected international body and force developers to retreat.

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