Viriato Luis Soares Cassamá, Guinea-Bissau minister of the environment, has presented the candidacy of a group of islands of the Bijagós archipelago for World Heritage status at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, according to reports.
In the decade since making its first application, Soares Cassamá said, Guinea-Bissau has carried out in-depth research work, trained technical staff for the future management of the site, brought the local community into the decision-making process and reworked its application based on feedback from UNESCO.
While the Bijagós archipelago is composed of 88 islands, this application covers the aquatic ecosystem of only Orango, Urok, João Vieira and Poilão. They are already protected as marine national parks, providing critical habitat to migratory birds and several sea turtle species.
The UNESCO World Heritage List currently covers 1,199 cultural and natural sites around the world, including 147 sites across 46 African countries. If Guinea-Bissau’s application is successful, it will be the first World Heritage site in the country.
The entire Bijagós archipelago, however, has been a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1996. Although only a quarter of the islands are inhabited, those populations have “developed an indissoluble relationship between natural and cultural heritage, and a way of life based on respect for and protection of the environment.” As learning places for sustainable development, UNESCO felt the Biosphere Reserve designation an appropriate recognition of this “exemplary work.”
A World Heritage designation could boost economic development and tourism throughout the country, not just the islands under consideration, and draw the world’s attention to the region.