Geoconservation is one of the fundamental pillars on which a Geopark is developed. Identifying and protecting important locations of geological heritage is an essential component of any Geopark strategy. However, the second fundamental pillar, that of sustainable economic development recognises that there may be competing demands of scientific, commercial and tourism exploitation of such Geoheritage. In the past, there have been many instances of competing uses and varying perceptions as to what scale and content are significant, which has led to sites of Geoheritage significance not being afforded the attention and protection they deserve. Geoparks have an essential role in highlighting the importance of Geodiversity and have a role in educating the public and policy makers in its wider protection.
Geoparks therefore play a leading role in the conservation and sustainable promotion of Geoheritage through the identification of Geo-sites and their protection. Long-term sustainable management of them through Geoconservation actions will ensure that they can be enjoyed and appreciated by present and future generations.
- What is Geodiversity?
- What is Geoheritage?
- What is Geoconservation?
- Geoparks and Geoconservation
- Geoconservation Strategies
- Geo-site Management
- Natural Resources
- Fossils and Minerals
- The UNESCO context
- Case Studies
For many people and organisations, nature conservation is about protecting biodiversity and ecosystems. However, Geoconservation is a fundamental element in the wider protection of all Earth’s natural resources and Geoparks lie at the heart of developing this message. For the development of any aspiring or new Geopark it is essential to understand how Geoconservation fits within the wider Geoheritage of the territory and contributes to Geodiversity as a whole, and to prepare strategies to protect, maintain and manage it.
Geoconservation deals with the conservation of non-living parts of the natural environment – geological features, landforms and soils. These non-living parts of the natural environment have significant values, and many aspects of this Geodiversity are just as sensitive to disturbance as biodiversity. Moreover, biodiversity is dependent upon Geodiversity, so that successful nature conservation requires the integration of bio-conservation with Geoconservation.
Geoparks are geographical areas that use the concept of sustainability, value the Earth’s heritage and recognise the need to protect it. In this context, indigenous, local, regional and/or national laws protect the Geo-sites of any Geopark. For this reason, conservation and management is the responsibility of the Geopark management authority, in co-operation with the appropriate agencies, which allow for the necessary monitoring and maintenance of these sites. In order to achieve this, appropriate protection measures for each Geo-site need to be set out in individual site management plans.
2. What is ‘Geodiversity’?
Geodiversity is the variety of earth materials, forms and processes that constitute and shape the Earth, either the whole or a specific part of it.
- Relevant materials include minerals, rocks, sediments, fossils, soils and water.
- Forms include folds, faults, landforms and other expressions of morphology or the relationships between units of earth material.
- Any natural process that continues to act upon, maintain or modify either material or form (for example tectonics, sediment transport, pedogenesis) represents another aspect of Geodiversity.
However, Geodiversity is not normally defined to include the likes of landscaping, concrete or other features of significant human influence.
Geodiversity also constitutes an important part of developing nature-based solutions to global environmental challenges and demands for natural resources. It can be argued that the lack of considering Geodiversity in international conventions and monitoring frameworks poses a threat to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
3. What is ‘Geoheritage’?
Geoheritage is those parts of geodiversity that are important for reconstructing Earth history and our understanding of it. The case for conserving Geoheritage sites is similar to that for conserving historic or archaeological sites. But rather than conserving the evidence for reconstructing human history, these sites are dealing with the history and evolution of the planet. There is a strong case for conserving the important sites that either have allowed, or have the potential to allow, scientists to reconstruct Earth history and the evolution of life on the planet. Since humans have evolved during geological time and by natural selection from ancestor species, it follows that human history is part of Earth history. So, an important reason for conserving Geoheritage is that it gives us an understanding of the history of the planet and our place in it.
Geoheritage may be:
- in situ (important Geo-sites with exceptional value at a local, regional, national or international scale, such as scientific, cultural, educational, touristic, etc) or
- ex situ (minerals, fossils and rocks that were extracted from their original site and housed in scientific collections and which have notable scientific, cultural, educational, tourism or any other value.
In addition, extremely valuable references to Geodiversity may be found in field notebooks, papers, photographs, maps, art, dissertations, books, etc. which are held in museums, art galleries and private and public collections. These references often bear historical and scientific Geoheritage value and are worthy of conservation.
4. What is ‘Geoconservation’?
Geoconservation is the identification, protection and management of sites and landscapes that are not only important for their rocks, fossils, minerals, or other geological or geomorphological features of interest, but which also make a special contribution to our Earth heritage and which can illustrate the processes which formed the Planet..
These sites – “Geo-sites” – can be important internationally, nationally, regionally or locally. Sites that are protected can be used to promote the understanding of geology to the general public and for education and research, now and in the future.
5. Geoparks and Conservation
Geoparks have an essential role to play in Geoconservation. All Geoparks, as part of their submission documentation to UNESCO, are required to demonstrate the significance of Geo-sites within their territory. Each UNESCO Global Geopark should have geological heritage of international significance which, in effect, means at least one designated site of international importance within the territory, together with a range of nationally and regionally important ones which collective form a network of sites which explain and support the themes upon which your Geopark submission is developed.
A Geopark is a geographical area where geological heritage sites are part of a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development. The Geopark should take into account the whole geographical setting of the region, and shall not solely include sites of geological significance. Non-geological themes are an integrated part of these criteria, especially when their relation to landscape and geology can be demonstrated to the visitors. For this reason, it is necessary to include also sites of ecological, archaeological, historical or cultural value. In many societies, natural, cultural and social history are inextricably linked and thus cannot be separated
Typically, a Geopark shall contribute to the conservation of significant geological features including:
- representative rocks;
- mineral resources;
It shall also conserve landforms and landscapes which provide information, where appropriate, on various geoscientific disciplines such as:
- solid earth sciences;
- economic geology and mining;
- engineering geology;
- glacial geology;
- physical geography;
- soil science;
- structural geology;
A Geopark explores and demonstrates methods and best practise of conserving these examples of geological heritage. The management authority of the Geopark ensures adequate protection measures, in consultation with relevant statutory bodies, to guarantee effective conservation and provide means for physical maintenance, as appropriate.
Through the strong commitment to sustainability, Geoparks are territories promote Geoconservation through education and, at the same time, encourage the sustainable use of the territorial natural resources. In this sense, Geoparks must have inventories of the abiotic and biotic natural resources and be committed to protect and qualify them, taking into account their vulnerability status and the need for of protection.
6. Geoconservation Strategies
Any aspiring or new Geopark needs to establish a Geoconservation strategy in order to protect its geological heritage. This strategy should be informed by a combination of:
- scientific research,
- local involvement, and
- the educational and interpretational activities of the Geopark and its partners.
In addition to identified Geo-sites, it is important to include and preserve the cultural references such as art and collections that refer to and involve the geological sites and other natural features, so giving them an added value. As a result, the combined geological heritage can become an important tourist attraction of significant economic value.
Furthermore, the preservation of the geological heritage in on-site museums or in interpretation centres, for example, can provide a focal point for tourists and attract a significant number of visitors to the Geopark. Such facilities provide opportunities for related educational programmes, which have the potential to attract students and teachers from all levels of education. In addition, there is an excellent opportunity to produce and sell thematic products, related to these unique geological features present in the Geopark, which may include:
- replicas of fossils and minerals,
- locally symbolic products for cafes and restaurants,
- reproductions of artistic prints / photographs etc.
Last, but not least, this geological heritage serves as inspiration for cultural activities (theatre, music, dance, etc.) and the production of educational and outreach materials.
Such broad-based opportunities arising from a coherent Geoconservation Strategy helps to create new sustainable markets and helps to mitigate the smuggling and traffic of original fossils and minerals. As such, it improves the prospects for new jobs and economic incomings for the local communities. These kinds of actions help to contribute directly to UNESCO sustainable development goals.
6.a Typical Priorities for a Geoconservation Action Strategy
Depending on the nature of your Geopark, typical priorities for a Geoconservation Action Strategy are:
- Site conservation, including contributions to maintaining and updating the register of Geo-sites, providing the evidence base for marine Geoconservation, advising the conservation agencies or leading on site management as appropriate and supporting the conservation case when sites are threatened;
- Developing the Geoconservation agenda and engaging with new conservation priorities, such as ecosystem services and trends, marine conservation, developing the wider relevance of Geoconservation to society and improving understanding of the links between Geodiversity and biodiversity as part of a more holistic approach to nature conservation and environmental management; and
- Interpretation, outreach and influencing policy, including engaging with local Geoconservation groups, providing evidence-based responses to Government consultations on planning, policy and environmental issues where there are issues, and supporting international developments in Geoconservation.
In practical terms within a Geopark territory, Geoconservation action and best practice can often be shared through working with partners, field meetings, conferences, public outreach and publications. Some organisations are now developing dedicated Geoconservation roles with officers in place.
7. Geo-site Management
The Geoconservation Strategy should develop an Action Plan to enable your Geopark to meet and manage its Geoconservation goals. Typical Geo-management actions may include:
- Auditing / Inventory of Sites and Collections
- Engaging with National Designating Bodies
- Conservation Proposals for Sites
- Managing Access and Visitor Expectations
- Identifying Interpretation Opportunities
The protection of Geo-sites begins with their inventory, characterisation and evaluation, providing an important baseline dataset against which all subsequent actions and management decisions can be assessed and monitored.
This process should be carried out by experienced professionals using methodologies recognised by national bodies or by UNESCO, which will allow for unity of approach and standardised valuation process. The most recently published geological maps should be one of the basic references, insofar as it will allow not only an update of the geological knowledge of the region, but also provide a basic tool for spatial planning, thus facilitating the territorial management of Geopark.
For an in-situ Geo-site, an audit document may include information on:
- Map showing extent of site.
- Description of Nature (e.g. is it a rock face. Landform etc.).
- Importance (e.g. stratigraphic / tectonic / geomorphological etc.).
- Current Condition (does it need maintenance to expose the important features?)
- Site Safety (Is it safe to access? Are there any areas that need fencing off?)
- Accessibility (Can it be reached by visitors with limited mobility?)
- Is it already protected by a national / international designation?
- Scientific / educational / cultural value.
For ex-situ collections, often of cultural value or which include material removed from a site, the audit document may include information on:
- Type of material (mineral collection / fossil collection / art collection etc.).
- Is it publicly accessible? (e.g. in a local museum).
- If privately owned, is it viewable on request?
- Age (e.g. historical pictures can show how a site has changed over time).
7.b Engaging with National Designating Bodies
In many instances, Geo-sites have legal protection because of their national or international scientific importance. In such instances, Geoconservation and site management strategies may have to be developed in partnership with the relevant national designating/protection body.
Your Geopark may also be able to support national designating bodies by enhancing site protection, especially sensitive sites such as fossil localities or those which are important stratigraphic markers to prevent illegal or inappropriate collecting.
By carrying out detailed work, or supporting science, your Geopark may also be in a position to have some of its undesignated sites protected by national bodies, so further enhancing the status of your Geo-sites.
Remember: Ultimately, it is the government of the country where the Geopark is situated which decides about the level and measures of protection of certain sites or geological outcrops, in accordance with national legislation or regulations.
7.c Geoconservation Activities
Geoconservation provides opportunities for local groups and communities to be actively involved in your Geopark. A community may be able to adopt a Geo-site, and working to agreed management protocols, carry out a range of activities to maintain it for visitors and researchers, for example,
- by keeping a rock face free of vegetation of loose material which poses a potential hazard.
- keeping paths clear and maintained.
- contributing local cultural knowledge to any interpretation projects.
- acting as local wardens or rangers.
7.d Visitor Management
An important role in Geoconservation is managing the number and movement of visitors to Geo-sites. Car parking should be in appropriate places so as not to detract from the Geo-site and if possible alternative methods of travel should be encouraged. Pathways should respect the local landscape and be designed using local materials to fit in with the Geo-site – curving paths which follow the topography may be better than straight paths.
Interpretation panels, which act as a focus point can quickly suffer erosion around them due to the footfall as visitors approach them, so should be carefully and sensitively sited.
In some instances, it may be necessary to limit the number of monthly / annual visitors to prevent damage to the site or tension with the local community. This can be achieved in a number of ways including:
- pre-booking and ticketing arrangements.
- guided visits with restricted numbers.
- turnstiles / gates or access via a visitor centre.
Depending on the nature of the site, visitor management may be an important component of Geo-site conservation. The Geopark management authority should also be aware that subsequent maintenance may be required to mitigate the impact of visitors and ensure that resources are in place to prevent deterioration of the site and its surroundings.
8. 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 at the human timescale and its exploitation has to be treated wisely.
Taking into account that natural resources are an asset for the regions and that their management is regulated by the national laws of each country, Geoparks have a wider responsibility for promoting education and awareness initiatives for their exploitation and use in a sustainable manner. Among other actions, particular attention should be paid to measures to mitigate environmental impacts and to highlight responsible and sustainable production and consumption patterns.
Special attention should also be given by Geoparks to the possibility of finding outstanding geological occurrences in areas of commercial exploitation, for example, in quarries, which can then be classified as geological heritage. Such identification can lead to the feature being submitted to the appropriate designating body for legal protection measures. Commercial exploitation can then be prohibited as the site is then within the territory of a Geopark. However, dialogue with operators would be a valuable first step as not only may they be important local employers, but they may be able to design safe access to the site into their operations.
It is therefore important to recognise that the management authority of any Geoparks have a constructive attitude with the entities responsible for the extraction and commercialisation of natural resources, in order to promote actions of justice and social responsibility towards the local communities. In this sense, Geopark management authorities need to be able to act as mediators between companies and local communities, ensuring at all times compliance with the basic principles inherent to the functioning of each Geopark.
9. Fossils and Minerals
In terms of Geological Heritage, there are geological specimens that, due to their aesthetic beauty, rarity, reduced dimensions and collector’s appeal, acquire commercial values, often high, which without controls can lead to a rapid loss of local natural heritage. In addition, this trade is often illegal, using contraband and human rights violations. This is the case of minerals and fossils, which are the target of commercialisation at fairs and stores, all over the world, including within territories certified UNESCO Global Geoparks.
Remember: The management structure of an UNESCO Global Geopark cannot participate directly or indirectly in the sale of geological objects such as fossils, minerals and polished rocks of the type normally found in so-called “rock-shops” within the area. At the same time, it should take action to raise awareness to discourage the unsustainable commercialisation of this heritage. This prohibition does not refer to material for normal industrial and household use that is sourced by quarrying and/or mining and which will be subject to regulation under national and/or international legislation, although such sites may expose features worthy of protection (see Section 8 above).
Under certain circumstances and where clearly justified as a responsible activity the management authority may permit sustainable collecting of geological materials for scientific and educational purposes from naturally renewable sites within the Geopark. Trade of geological materials (in accordance with national legislation on Earth heritage conservation) based on such a system may be tolerated in exceptional circumstances, provided it is clearly and publicly explained, justified and monitored as the best option for the Geopark in relation to local circumstances. Such circumstances will be subject to debate and approval on a case-by-case basis.
10. The UNESCO Context
Effective management of Natural Resources in relation to Geoheritage and Geoconservation by Geoparks allow them to contribute effectively to a set of indicators and targets of several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UNESCO 2030 Agenda, with a particular emphasis on SDGs 12, 14 and 15. On this basis, UNESCO Global Geoparks must implement, among other initiatives, the adequate management of natural resources, as well as strategies for waste management, promoting recycling, reducing and reusing activities and awareness actions and attitudes.
To ensure responsible exploitation of natural resources, particularly of commercial minerals and aggregates, Geoparks should encourage a balance between commercialisation and justice and social responsibility, potentially acting as mediators between commercial operators and local communities, whilst being compliant with the basic principles of Geopark status. Compliance with these principles will contribute in itself to a set of indicators and targets for SDGs 8, 16 and 17.
11. Case Studies
The case studies showcase Geopark-based activities in supporting Geoheritage and Geoconservation principles, and how these can support wider Geopark and UNESCO messages with respect to sustainable development. You can use aspects of these examples in your own Geopark setting by adapting to practical and cultural norms.
- Case Study 1, shows how the Basque Coast UNESCO Global Geopark manages and protects important fossils from a Geo-site which is subject to active coastal erosion in situ for as long as possible, but once removed, are conserved and replicas are made.
- Case Study 2, describes the making of a most important fossil collection and good practice in its maintenance.