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October 24, 2019

GEOPARKS: Conserving, educating and promoting sustainable development

An area spanning over 360 square miles around Mandalay Region’s Mount Popa has good potential as a UNESCO Global Geopark site.  Photo: Chan Thar (Meikhtila)
An area spanning over 360 square miles around Mandalay Region’s Mount Popa has good potential as a UNESCO Global Geopark site. Photo: Chan Thar (Meikhtila)

What is a Geopark?
A landscape is designated a geopark if it has a geological, archaeological, cultural, historical and ecological heritage of particular significance, rarity or beauty. The task of a geopark is to make this heritage into an experience for visitors and the population and to convey an awareness of the development and importance of the landscape.
UNESCO defines three overall objectives for a geopark: in addition to preserving the environment, action should be taken towards achieving sustained economic development and promoting better general education in the Earth sciences. There are currently 147 UNESCO Global Geoparks in 41 countries and 276 National Geoparks in 36 countries in Asia Pacific and Europe.
UNESCO Global Geoparks are single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development. AUNESCO Global Geopark uses its geological heritage, in connection with all other aspects of the area’s natural and cultural heritage, to enhance awareness and understanding of key issues facing society, such as using our earth’s resources sustainably, mitigating the effects of climate change and reducing the impact of natural disasters. By raising awareness of the importance of the area’s geological heritage in history and society today, UNESCO Global Geoparks give local people a sense of pride in their region and strengthen their identification with the area. The creation of innovative local enterprises, new jobs and high quality training courses is stimulated as new sources of revenue are generated through geotourism, while the geological resources of the area are protected.

Is a Geopark only about geology?
No! While a Geopark must demonstrate geological heritage of international significance, the purpose of a Geopark is to explore, develop and celebrate the links between that geological heritage and all other aspects of the area’s natural, cultural and intangible heritages. It is about connecting human society at all levels to the planet we all call home and to celebrate how our planet and its 4,600 million year long history has shaped every aspect of our lives and our societies.

A bottom-up approach
Geoparks empower local communities and give them the opportunity to develop cohesive partnerships with the common goal of promoting the area’s significant geological processes, features, periods of time, historical themes linked to geology, or outstanding geological beauty. Geoparks are established through a bottom-up process involving all relevant local and regional stakeholders and authorities in the area (e.g. land owners, community groups, tourism providers, indigenous people, and local organizations). This process requires firm commitment by the local communities, a strong local multiple partnership with long-term public and political support, and the development of a comprehensive strategy that will meet all of the communities’ goals while showcasing and protecting the area’s geological heritage.

UNESCO Global Geoparks, Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage Sites: a complete picture
UNESCO Global Geoparks, together with the other two UNESCO site designations Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage Sites, give a complete picture of celebrating our heritage while at the same time conserving the world’s cultural, biological and geological diversity, and promoting sustainable economic development. While Biosphere Reserves focus on the harmonized management of biological and cultural diversity and World Heritage Sites promote the conservation of natural and cultural sites of outstanding universal value, UNESCO Global Geoparks give international recognition for sites that promote the importance and significance of protecting the Earth’s geodiversity through actively engaging with the local communities. In case an aspiring UNESCO Global Geopark includes a World Heritage Site or Biosphere Reserve, a clear justification and evidence has to be provided on how UNESCO Global Geopark status will add value by being both independently branded and in synergy with the other designations.

Four Essentials
Geological heritage of international value
In order to become a UNESCO Global geopark, the area must have geological heritage of international value. This is assessed by scientific professionals, as part of the “UNESCO Global Geopark Evaluation Team”. Based on the international peer-reviewed, published research conducted on the geological sites within the area, the scientific professionals make a globally comparative assessment to determine whether the geological sites constitute international value.

Management
UNESCO Global Geoparks are managed by a body having legal existence recognized under national legislation. This management body should be appropriately equipped to address the entire area and should include all relevant local and regional actors and authorities. UNESCO Global Geoparks require a management plan, agreed upon by all the partners, that provides for the social and economic needs of the local populations, protects the landscape in which they live and conserves their cultural identity. This plan must be comprehensive, incorporating the governance, development, communication, protection, infrastructure, finances, and partnerships of the UNESCO Global Geopark.

Visibility
UNESCO Global Geoparks promote sustainable local economic development mainly through geotourism. In order to stimulate the geotourism in the area, it is crucial that a UNESCO Global Geopark has visibility. Visitors as well as local people need to be able to find relevant information on the UNESCO Global Geopark. As such, UNESCO Global Geoparks need to provide information via a dedicated website, leaflets, and detailed map of the area that connects the area’s geological and other sites. A UNESCO Global Geopark should also have a corporate identity.

Networking
A UNESCO Global geopark is not only about cooperation with the local people living in the Geopark area, but also cooperating with other UNESCO Global Geoparks through the Global Geoparks Network (GGN), and regional networks for UNESCO Global geoparks, in order to learn from each other and, as a network, improve the quality of the label UNESCO Global geopark. Working together with international partners is the main reason for UNESCO Global Geoparks to be a member of an international network such as the GGN. Membership of the GGN is obligatory for UNESCO Geoparks. By working together across borders, UNESCO Global Geoparks contribute to increasing understanding among different communities and as such help peace-building processes.

Top 10 topics within UNESCO Global Geoparks
Natural resources
Since the dawn of humanity natural resources provided by the Earth’s solid crust have been the basis for our social and economic development. These resources include minerals, hydrocarbons, rare earth elements, geothermal energy, air and water, and their sustainable use is vital for the continued future well-being of society. Any element which can be found on Earth has its origin in geology and geological processes, is non-renewable and its exploitation has to be treated wisely. UNESCO Global Geopark inform people about the sustainable use and need for natural resources, whether they are mined, quarried or harnessed from the surrounding environment, while at the same time promoting respect for the environment and the integrity of the landscape.

Geological Hazards
Many UNESCO Global Geoparks promote awareness of geological hazards, including volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, and many help prepare disaster mitigation strategies among local communities. Through educational activities for the local people and visitors many UNESCO Global Geoparks give information on the source of geological hazards and ways to reduce their impact including disaster response strategies. These efforts build important capacity and contribute to building more resilient communities that have the knowledge and skills to effectively respond to potential geological hazards.

Climate Change
UNESCO Global Geoparks hold records of past climate change and are educators on current climate change as well as adopting a best practice approach to utilizing renewable energy and employing the best standard of “green tourism”. While some UNESCO Global Geoparks stimulate green growth in the region through innovative projects, others serve as outdoor museums on the effects of current climate change thus giving the opportunity to show visitors how climate change can affect our environment. Such community and educational activities and projects are important in order to raise awareness on the potential impact of climate change on the region, and to provide the local communities with the knowledge to mitigate and adapt to the potential effects of climate change.

Education
It is a per-requisite that all UNESCO Global Geoparks develop and operate educational activities for all ages to spread awareness of our geological heritage and its links to other aspects of our natural, cultural and intangible heritages. Global Geoparks offer educational programmes for schools or offer special activities for children through “Kids Clubs” or special “Fossil Fun Days”. Global Geoparks also offer education, both formal and informal, for adults and retired people while many provide training for local people who can then, in turn, teach others.

Science
UNESCO Global Geoparks are special areas where the geological heritage, or geodiversity, is of international importance. Global Geoparks are thus encouraged to work with academic institutions to engage in active scientific research in the Earth Sciences, and other disciplines as appropriate, to advance our knowledge about the Earth and its processes. A UNESCO Global Geopark is not a museum, it is an active laboratory where people can become engaged in science from the highest academic research level to the level of curious visitor. A Global Geopark must take great care not to alienate the public from science and absolutely must avoid the use of technical scientific language on information boards, signs, leaflets, maps and books which are aimed at the general public.

Culture
The motto of UNESCO Global Geoparks is “Celebrating Earth Heritage, Sustaining Local Communities”. UNESCO Global Geoparks are fundamentally about people and about exploring and celebrating the links between our communities and the Earth. The Earth has shaped who we are: it has shaped our farming practices, the building materials and methods we have used for our homes, even our mythology, folklore and folk traditions. Global Geoparks therefore engage in a range of activities to celebrate these links. Many Global Geoparks have strong links to the arts communities where the synergy released by bringing science and the arts together can yield surprising results.

Women
UNESCO Global Geoparks have a strong emphasize on empowering women whether through focussed education programmes or through the development of women’s cooperatives. Global Geoparks are a platform for the development, nurturing and promotion of local cottage industry and craft products. In some Global Geoparks women’s cooperatives also provide an opportunity for women to obtain additional income in their own area and on their own terms. They can, for example, operate accommodation services for visitors.

Sustainable Development
Even if an area has outstanding, world-famous geological heritage of outstanding universal value it cannot be a UNESCO Global Geopark unless the area also has a plan for the sustainable development of the people who live there. This may take the form of sustainable tourism through, for example, the development of walking or cycling trails, training of local people to act as guides, encouraging tourism and accommodation providers to follow international best practice in environmental sustainability. But it can also be about simply engaging with local people and respecting their traditional way of life in a way that empowers them and respect their human rights and dignity. Unless a UNESCO Global Geopark has the support of local people it will not succeed. UNESCO Global Geopark status does not imply restrictions on any economic activity inside a Global Geopark where that activity complies with indigenous, local, regional and /or national legislation.

Local and indigenous Knowledge
UNESCO Global Geoparks actively involve local and indigenous peoples, preserving and celebrating their culture. By involving local and indigenous communities, Global Geoparks recognize the importance of these communities, their culture and the link between these communities and their land. It is one of the criteria of UNESCO Global Geoparks that local and indigenous knowledge, practice and management systems, alongside science, are included in the planning and management of the area.

Geoconservation

UNESCO Global Geoparks are areas that use the concept of sustainability, value the heritage of Mother Earth and recognize the need to protect it. The defining geological sites in UNESCO Global Geoparks are protected by indigenous, local, regional and /or national law and management authorities, in cooperation with the appropriate agencies, which allow for the necessary monitoring and maintenance of these sites. Appropriate protection measures for each site are set out in individual site management plans. The management body of a UNESCO Global Geopark will also not participate directly in the sale of geological objects such fossils, minerals, polished rocks and ornamental rocks of the type normally found in so-called “rock-shops” within the area, and many actively discourage unsustainable trade in geological materials as a whole. It does not refer to material for normal industrial and household use which is sourced by quarrying and/or mining and which will be subject to regulation under national and/or international legislation.
Based on the information of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, conserved by Forest Department, Geopark Establishment Committee under Myanmar Geosciences Society proposed 10 potential Geopark areas in Myanmar. The potential areas are Hkakaborazi, Putao, Indawgyi lake, Twintaung, Mount Popa, Inley lake, Pindaya cave, Mount Zewgabin, Myan Aung Kyun and Balue Kyun. Of all, Mount Popa is the most suitable and eligible area to begin the first geopark in Myanmar. Therefore, MGS Geopark Establishment Committee, by the permission of Forest Department and Chief Minister of Mandalay Region, commenced inventory of geosites on 9th December 2016. The term “ Geosite” is used to describe outstanding, unique or representative sites of monumental character that can be highlighted because of their particular scientific, ecological or aesthetic value. Geosites can record the geological history of each area and therefore have an exceptional significance. An inventory of geosites provides a basic management tool which enables the effective planning of scientific, geo-conservation, educational and geo-tourism initiatives.
An inventory is much more than a simple list of places of geological interest. It involves a selection of sites that together represent the geology of the local area, and it also includes a quantitative analysis of the different parameters that will help plan their management in the future.
With the above views in mind, the Government has formed the first National Geopark Committee, chaired by Union Minister for Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation on 28th August 2019 so as to supervise and to promote National Geoparks and UNESCO Global Geoparks. The National Geopark Committee has formed the National Geopark Working Committee, chaired by Deputy Minister for Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation for establishing National Geoparks towards UNESCO Global Geoparks in potential areas. We are confident that the MGS’s Geopark Programme in collaboration with Forest Department, Geology Departments of various Universities, Department of Geological Survey and Mineral Exploration and UNESCO Global Geopark Network under able leadership of Union Minister U Ohn Win will succeed in foreseeable future.

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