FUSCHOU, China– The UNESCO World Heritage Committee today called on the United States to stop building border walls. The committee also urged the United States to work with Mexico to assess wall damage to a World Heritage Site in Mexico and adjacent protected areas in the United States and to recommend ways to restore the landscape and wildlife habitat.
Today’s resolution, adopted by the Committee, the official decision-making body under the World Heritage Convention, follows a 2017 petition from conservation groups and representatives of the Tohono O’odham of Sonora, Mexico. This petition applied for “in danger” status for the El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve and the Gran Desierto de Altar on the US-Mexico border. This 2,700 square mile World Heritage Site is bordered by the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in the United States
“This is an important step in repairing the havoc the border wall has wreaked on communities and wildlife,” said Alex Olivera, a senior scientist and representative of the Mexico Center for Biodiversity. “We share the responsibility to protect the wildlife in the Sonoran Desert and to undo the terrible damage that the construction of the wall did on both sides of the border.”
In its resolution, the committee said that the “negative impact of the border wall on biodiversity and property preservation is of paramount importance”. It called on the United States to stop the construction of the boundary walls between the Organ Pipe Biosphere Reserve and Cabeza Prieta, assess the damage and “develop appropriate measures to ensure the restoration of ecological connectivity”.
In 2013, UNESCO declared the El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve a World Heritage Site in recognition of the region’s outstanding biodiversity, including desert animals that have evolved over millions of years and freely cross the border between the United States and Mexico. The border wall blocks essential movement and migration, fragments the habitat, and restricts the animals’ ability to forage for food and water.
The wall also harms the Tohono O’odham, who in the past inhabited El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar and whose traditional land is divided by the US-Mexico border. El Pinacate is sacred to the Tohono O’odham, and the site is regularly used for ceremonial purposes, including a sacred salt pilgrimage across the Gulf of California border.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order on his first day in office that put the construction of the boundary walls on hold. In June, the administration canceled wall projects that were paid for with diverted military funds.
Conservation groups have urged the Biden government to immediately begin restoring more than a dozen environmentally sensitive and culturally significant areas damaged by the construction of the Wall, including the areas bordering El Pinacate.
The coalition sent the government and members of Congress a document listing the criteria and specific areas in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas for the Wall to fall and the land to heal. These include wildlife sanctuaries, sacred sites, wilderness areas, wildlife corridors, and rivers.
“Restoring these fragile ecosystems must be a bi-national effort and we are grateful that UNESCO has taken such vigorous action to address this problem,” said Olivera. “We hope that the governments of Biden and Lopez Obrador will work closely with border communities and tribal nations to repair whatever has been destroyed.”