Dr Fanny Douvere, Coordinator of UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Programme Discusses the Growing Impact of Climate Change on the Oceans

Lindsay Judge   |   08-03-2020

Dr Fanny Douvere is a woman with a huge challenge. In her role as Coordinator of the Marine Programme at UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre in Paris, she is responsible for overseeing the mission to conserve and sustainably manage UNESCO’s Marine World Heritage sites.


With over one thousand Heritage sites in the world including fifty marine sites, these exceptional areas are prone to destruction and damage as a result of the growing effects of climate change and pollution, as unsustainable fisheries, plastic and a general lack of care for the ocean from humans. Many of these sites are crucial to the sustainability of the planet and the protection of endangered species and marine life.


Douvere’s day to day work includes field missions at the sites to evaluate the state of conservation and training to the local people across areas spanning 37 countries of the world. Here we discuss with Douvere the crucial importance of the work UNESCO is doing, as well as challenges she faces and how the future goals will be achieved in the coming years.




How did you develop your interest and care for the environment and marine life?

I was born in Belgium in a city called Ostend which is bordered by the sea, so from a very early age, I was exposed to the ocean and fishing. I then went to university and studied law and politics before working at the Maritime Institute and that’s where I developed my interest in the subject. I loved the ocean and spent a lot of time being very close to it. Of course, Belgium is a small country and we have only around 65km of coast so I decided to look internationally to build my career and that’s how I got to where I am today.


What does 2020 have in store for the World Heritage Marine Programme?

I have recently taken on new tasks to build on some of the successes we’ve had in the Marine Project and use them to help other natural world heritage sites. Part of the reason for this is that climate change is becoming an increasingly large problem, but more importantly, this year is what we call the “super year” for biodiversity. There were a whole range of international targets that were set ten years ago and the deadline for them was 2020. So this year we will re-evaluate the work and look at what has been achieved at a global level. This will include a United Nations conference on the oceans in June and an international conference in China later in the year which will set the targets for biodiversity up until 2030. So really for us and for everyone working in the environment industry, 2020 is a very important year.


Strengthening marine World Heritage in Sudan through South-South cooperation


Do you think you have succeeded in a lot of the tasks that were set ten years ago?

I think on a global scale, some things have been achieved yes, but of course, there are many aspects that have not been achieved yet. What has happened over the last ten years is that we have seen a tremendous surge in scientific understanding of climate change and how it is affecting biodiversity. So it’s a very mixed story. On one hand, we have had huge success, in 2018, for example, we were able to take the Belize Barrier Reef, the second-largest coral reef in the world, out of the World Heritage List of Sites in Danger and that was thanks to the government there who set up a ban on oil and put in many new regulations to protect the site. So there are huge successes but on the other hand, of course, there has been a huge acceleration in the loss of biodiversity, even in the flagship protected areas.


What is the outlook for coral reefs in the face of climate change?

Two years ago we launched the first global scientific assessment on the impact of climate change on coral reefs. We have twenty-nine sites that are all very different and also very representative across the globe. We worked with scientists to look at three different climate emission scenarios and the conclusion was that we could lose all of these coral reefs if things continue as they are and this could happen as soon as the turn of the century. Now, at the same time, we are really stepping up our work. So it’s a very difficult situation in which we need to rapidly develop strategies to make these areas more resilient.


Marine World Heritage Workshop, November 2019, Komodo National Park


From your experiences can you give us some insights into how climate change is affecting the world’s marine sites and oceans?

There are actually two sides to this. On the one hand, the effects are on nature but on the other hand, it is people. When it comes to the people component, we don’t necessarily understand exactly what the impact is yet. Of course, when it comes to nature there are very concrete examples including areas that used to be freshwater that are now saltwater, there are areas where we have a huge loss of corals, we also see movements across the oceans especially with species that used to breed in one area who are now moving elsewhere because the water is warmer or colder. But I think the most important thing is simply the sheer speed at which we are losing species. If you lose one species it can change a whole food chain and this is happening incredibly quickly throughout the world. I think it’s important to stress that it’s not just the impact on nature, it’s also the impact on people. People eat a lot of fish – especially in poorer countries and islands that really rely on it. We are getting more and more people in the world so food is becoming more and more important so it’s really crucial that we preserve these species at the sites.


What do you think can be done to further raise the awareness of these projects?

I think there are a number of things can be done both on a global scale and an individual level. One of the most important things is that the temperature of the earth needs to go down. One thing that can be done is for people to no longer invest in disruptive practices that will affect the oceans. That could be done at a multiple range of levels.



We have at world heritage what we call the “No-Go Commitment” in which huge enterprises in industries such as oil and gas, mining, fishing etc. agree to simply stop unsustainable practices and invest in more sustainable options.

Our World Heritage Sites are sacred and they belong to all of us in the world so unsustainable practices like building mines in the oceans, for example, are having a negative effect on the whole planet. So that’s a huge thing that big corporations can do. It also comes down to where investments are going. There is still too little focus on real returns and I think it’s also still very vague on where investments are made. But for example, at an institutional level, big pension firms could make choices to invest in companies that no longer do unsustainable practices in the waters. Even on an individual level, we can simply no longer consume products that come from unsustainable methods and companies. We can change our consumption patterns and no longer consume certain species and this will also help.

There is a global challenge when it comes to C02 emissions, it’s an institutional and corporate challenge with regards to the choices that can be made, and on an individual level, there are things that can be done as well so things need to become clearer and more focused and I think if this happens we can build a huge movement that ultimately will save these sites and oceans as a whole.


Staying with the individual level that you mentioned – there is a certain amount of education that needs to be done so that people have awareness – what can UNESCO do to support this?

Education is at the very heart of what we do at UNESCO. It is important that people are made aware of these topics from a young age, but it’s also incredibly important to educate parents, big corporations and other people on what we stand to lose if changes aren’t made and what we can really do to make these changes happen. One of the critical things is the lack of resources at nature organisations like UNESCO so we need to look at our heritage and what can be done. It’s improving as there is more and more investment coming to us but what we need and what we are working on is to create closer partnerships that can both provide financial support but can also help us to reach out to the kind of people that we need to educate. Education is ultimately at the very heart of making changes and UNESCO is in a unique position to be able to move forward with education so that is something we are focusing on.


Strengthening marine World Heritage in Sudan through South-South cooperation


The challenges on these sites are growing more and more so how do you keep up with what is happening globally and continue to find solutions?

The World Heritage Convention was found in 1972 and we had our budgets and goals laid out when the convention was first signed, but of course, the issues today are totally different than what they were in 1972. This is a critical issue that we are dealing with, especially when it comes to climate change. We’re trying extremely hard to bring the right partners on board, both financially and partners that can assist us in our work. At the same time, however, the World Heritage cannot just be protected by UNESCO. UNESCO is the guardian over these sites and setting the standards but each country needs to adhere to these standards in order to respect the sites. We cannot save these problems alone, it takes everybody. We are collectively responsible for the protection of our common ocean heritage and there needs to be a global collaboration, especially with the right partners in the right places.


Are there any regions in the world that you feel need particular focus at the moment?

We have 1,121 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List and the large majority of those sites are cultural sites. There are only 252 sites that are natural today and of that only 50 are in the oceans. Now when you consider that seventy per cent of the planet is ocean, there is clearly quite a critical gap. There are gaps in certain regions that definitely have exceptional marine ecosystems but there is not yet much research done in some of these regions so we’re not necessarily aware of what is there. This is really sad because at the same time a lot of these ecosystems are already damaged. We also have a major initiative in what we call the “High Seas”. Fifty per cent of the planet is beyond national jurisdiction meaning that there is no specific nation that’s responsible for it. So we are finalising presenting the results and studies to our committee members that looks at exceptional areas in the deepest parts of the ocean.

Beyond that, the Arctic region is also an area that is very rapidly changing due to climate change. There are areas that are opening up due to more industrialisation and it is critically important to look at these areas as well. We launched a publication with the principality of Monaco to look at marine sites in the Arctic that really should have protection, so this is one development.


Marine World Heritage Workshop, November 2019, Komodo National Park


Can you tell us anything about the work you are doing in The Middle East?

We’re actually working quite closely to get more visibility for our work in the Arabic region. We have now a Marine World Heritage Site in Sudan. Port Sudan is a marine site near the coral reefs in the Red Sea. There is a very interesting point about coral reefs in the Red Sea that they are perceived to be much more resistant to climate change and warming waters than other coral reefs around the world. So it’s a very interesting place for us to really invest and focus on protecting that site. It could be one of the few coral reef systems around the world that could potentially resist to warming temperatures.


What would you still like to achieve with your position that you haven’t done yet?

There are three main things that I would like to achieve. One is to see unsustainable fishing no longer happening in any world heritage sites. I think it makes no sense anymore today. Secondly, I would really like to find a way that we can finance the protection of these sites. The problem is that we are working on a project by project basis so have different projects to solve different problems, but the issue is that we are really missing a lot of the problems. I think one of the things I would like to see happening is some kind of environment fund or more sustainable financing at a global scale that can give us the means to protect these places. Thirdly I think it’s about education. We can put as much money as we want into this but unless people change their behaviour it won’t make much difference in the long term. I would like to help people realise there are really simple things they can do but they really need to be done and people do need to change their habits in order to work towards solving these issues.


Strengthening marine World Heritage in Sudan through South-South cooperation


What difficulties do you and have you faced as a woman working in this industry?

The reality is that I generally feel treated correctly and by nature, I am a person who would quite quickly indicate if there was anything out of place. I feel con dent that I would step up and say something if there were any issue related to this. Unfortunately, the reality is that it is happening, that there are certain circumstances in which being a woman does make things different. There have definitely been instances in the past where because I am a woman I wasn’t necessarily taken seriously and you cannot deny that it happens. On the other hand, UNESCO is an organisation that actually has put in place clear regulations on all of these issues and it is an organisation that is promoting women in more senior positions. Our Director-General right now is a woman herself. Clear regulations have been put in place for things like harassment and I think that really changes the dynamics. I feel that I am actually working in an organisation that takes these issues seriously and are serious about promoting women in higher positions so I think I’m maybe in more of a privileged place that others in other industries.


How do you stay motivated when you are dealing with such huge challenges in this sector?

In my position, I am travelling to some of the world’s most beautiful places and we do see a lot of destruction and it can be very disheartening. But on the other hand, I do have a lot of hope. In our day to day work, we have a lot of successes like in Belize, for example, we are having huge developments. In the Philippines a few years ago we were actually able to move a shipping lane via the International Maritime Organisation so that ships that travel from Singapore were no longer passing near to the World Heritage area. There are a whole range of achievements I can list and we do see people really changing the way they are doing business and I think that’s what gives me hope. On a broader scale when you look at investments there is a whole movement going on when it comes to governments and corporations considering where their investments go and the environment is becoming a key part of this. World Heritage can really be a part of this movement and it could really make a difference. This is what gives me hope. What it comes down to is how can we use our resources to support this? That comes back to some of the events that have happened over the last couple of years and we are definitely building momentum to support the world heritage sites.



What is the professional motto that you live by?

Dream big, work hard, never give up.


Where do you travel when you’re not working?

I travel so much for work so I actually don’t travel that much for holidays but I do try to go to places where I can take a good book and calmly read. Working internationally we have sites all over the globe so my job is twenty-four hours so I think when I go on holiday I like to go somewhere where I can just read a good book. But I don’t travel much for personal time.


Marine World Heritage Workshop, November 2019, Komodo National Park


What is a book that you’ve read that has inspired you?

A book by Dominique Loreau entitled “L’art de la simplicité – How to live more with less.”


What can people do to get involved or to help support the causes?

You can visit our website at whc.unesco.org/en/activities/13/