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Holistic Assessment and Karst in World Heritage

Elery Hamilton-Smith
Chair, IUCN/WCPA Task Force on Caves and Karst


Both early hominoids and people have lived, worshipped, played, adventured and
been interred in caves since the very emergence of two-legged beings. So, it is not
surprising that karst landscapes have been a remarkable focal point of human interest
throughout history. At the same time, these land systems provide a remarkable record
of the environment and are a rich resource for understanding the history of the earth –
often expressed in the words, “Caves are the books in the library of the history of the

There are over 50 karst sites inscribed as World Heritage. Some, including Gunung
Mulu, Skocjanske Jame, Carlsbad Caverns and Mammoth Cave were recognised on
their values as karst, but the majority have been inscribed for reasons of aesthetics,
biodiversity or cultural history. Only a very few, including Pamukkale and the
Tasmanian Wilderness have been assessed, nominated and inscribed on a holistic

This paper will review karst sites, and discuss the extent to which adequate
recognition, boundary definition and management would be greatly enhanced by a
holistic approach. In particular, all karst sites (even those which are at present only
recognised for their cultural values) demand consideration of watershed protection as
a prerequisite for long-term integrity. Similarly, sites recognised only for natural
values may well be managed in ways that result in degradation, or even ignorance, of
their cultural values.

Karst areas provide excellent examples of the potential inter-relationships between

cultural and natural heritage.

Karst is a land system that has been primarily formed and shaped by solution. Such
systems generally lack surface drainage, and are distinguished by the presence of
distinctive and often rugged surface landscapes, together with a multitude of caves
and other subterranean cavities that provide for the drainage of the system. They are
most commonly found in limestone, but also occur in gypsum, salt and other soluble
even including quartzite.

Today, karst is also recognised as a highly complex interactive system (Yuan Daoxian
1988, Eberhard 1994) ‘. . . which incorporates component landforms, life, energy
flows, water, gases, soils and bedrock.’ Recognition of the importance and
vulnerability of this dynamic interaction must underpin the effective management
and conservation of karst areas.

Firstly, both early hominoids and people have lived, worshipped, played, adventured
and been interred in caves since the very emergence of two-legged beings. So, it is not
surprising that karst landscapes have been a remarkable focal point of human interest
throughout history. Nor is it surprising that they contain some of the most remarkable
treasures of our cultural heritage throughout the whole of history.

Secondly, these land systems provide a remarkable record of the environment and are
a rich resource for understanding the history of the earth – often expressed in the
words, “Caves are the books in the library of the history of the earth.” We are still
learning to read those books, but almost every month brings forward new
understandings that have arisen from that struggle to interpret what we have.

Thirdly, many of our most remarkable hotspots of biodiversity are in karst. This is
simply because the very nature of karst terrains and sub-terrains have a great diversity
of micro-climatic niches within which we find an equally diverse range of biotic
communities. There are karst regions that are yielding literally hundreds of endemic
species. Even more, there are hundreds of small sites within those regions that provide
even more dramatic examples of biodiversity. Think of a small cave in Vietnam that
has 17 species of snails, 15 of which belong to a single family; two small pools in two
neighbouring caves of Thailand, each with six endemic species, only one of which has
been found outside of that pool; and wells into the deep groundwater of Western
Australia which have yielded over 55 species of subterranean Dytiscid Beetles.
An overview of World Heritage on karst

• At least 9 sites were inscribed as natural heritage simply because of their karst
values. The citation of all but one of these included recognition of being “. . . of
exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance”. This reflects the traditional
perspective upon which popular perception of caves is based, and only the most
recently nominated sites have been accorded full recognition of deeper values. At
least two of these, each with a very long history of recognition, should probably
also be recognised as important cultural landscapes, but have not been assessed
from that or other wider perspectives.

• Then 24 were inscribed for a wide range of values, of which one may have been
their karst context. I would argue that 14 of these also warrant consideration of
cultural values, in terms of either specific features or general cultural landscape

• Only three sites (Tasmanian Wilderness, Pyrenees-Mount Perdu and Pamukkale)

are inscribed for both natural and cultural values.

• Finally, nine sites are inscribed only for their cultural values, of which two are
recognised as cultural landscapes, one largely as an architectural site, and six are
archaeological and rock art sites. A number of these have a tightly constrained
boundary, but sit within a wider karst context and if wider area was taken into,
probably 6 of them might well be assessed in terms of their natural values.

Thus, of the 45 sites that I have included in this discussion (I may have missed a
couple) at least 22 would justify further and more holistic assessment.

In summary, I contend that the earlier (and often even the current) processes of World
Heritage recognition and inscription often fail to do justice to the full spectrum of
values demonstrated by each site. This problem commences with the general public
perception of sites, which is often translated into site nomination, which in turn
shapes the assessment process and from that, the basis of future management.

The cultural-natural schism has many implications, but let me cite one of my own
very recent experiences that demonstrates the extent to which it creates “blind spots”.
I shared in leading a training program for natural protected area managers from the
ASEAN Region. The participants were taken on tours of three world heritage sites.
Two of these were inscribed as natural heritage, and in each of these, we all met with
senior staff and talked with them about the site and its management. The third was the
great cultural site of the old city of Hue, and there we were “shown” some aspects of
the site by a commercial guide. The organisers had not contacted the management
board; there was no attention given to the management issues presented by the site,
and not even any awareness of the extent to which the site included a very beautiful
and historically significant tribute to the karst area that we had visited on the previous
Towards Holism

In general, it appears that framing of nominations and the subsequent assessment

commences with a more-or-less assumed site, perceives it as either natural or cultural,
and then either assesses how far that site might fit the criteria for nomination. This is
based in general public perceptions, but then sets a pattern which often continues
through the processes of nomination, pre-inscription review and assessment,
inscription and management. I believe the best starting point in moving to a more
holistic approach should commence with the nomination process, which means
providing a much broader briefing for those preparing nominations.

As a starting point, I will commence by outlining the pattern of assessment of karst

areas which has arisen initially out of Australian experience in various forms of karst
area assessment. These include:
• heritage valuation (Davey 1984)
• assessment for planning or management planning of protected areas (Hamilton-
Smith, Kiernan & Spate 1998)
• planning for sustainable management of forestry and other exploitive industries
(Kiernan 1995)
• education for karst management professionals (in the graduate programs of
Charles Sturt University)
• development of urban or regional planning prescriptions (for instance by the
Western Australian Department for Planning and Infrastructure).

Our approach has also been supported and further clarified by the work of the US
Geological Survey in their development of Hierarchical Systems Analysis. This has
been utilized, for example, in both assessment of environmental problems at Carlsbad
Caverns and in analysing impacts of aggregate mining in karst. (Langer and Kolm

The underlying principle is that we commence at the broadest level, even

commencing with the impact of continental structure and plate tectonics, moving
down to regional geology and geomorphology as a basis for focussing upon the study
area, hydrology of the region, then to deposits (clastics, sediment and spelothems)
within caves, then to climatology and surface and subsurface biodiversity. We are
then able to look at human and cultural issues, putting these into the overall
environmental context.

This does not take any one format for action. At present, it will vary from site to site
and worker to worker as we are still on a learning curve. One of the most important
things we have learned is that during a systematic review of this kind, even though it
is often done in haste because of resource constraints, we make a number of new
discoveries. One simple example was from one of my students (a geologist) who
recognised that a specific plant was growing only within about 3 metres of the
junction between limestone and the adjacent volcanic rocks. It had been missed in the
general botanical survey of the park, and although not a new species, its normal
habitat was many kilometres distant..
This level of discovery arises simply because previous observations depended upon
individual interests and many aspects of the environment have been taken for granted
and not examined.

Table 1 provides one very brief overview of this scheme purely as an example, but not
as a model. However, this is still only moving towards holism and does not deal
adequately with the cultural dimensions. So Table 2 attempts to outline, but with more
attention to human and cultural phenomena, something of the direction in which a
more holistic scheme might evolve.

Table 1: A Hierarchical Assessment . . .

• National/Regional Context
• Landforms & Geodiversity
• Water and Air
• Subterranean Landforms
• Cave Contents
• Surface Biodiversity
• Subterranean Biodiversity
• Cultural Values
• Other Human Benefits

Obviously, even for such an assessment to occur, there will probably be at least an
established prima facie case that the site meets world heritage criteria. Basically, I am
suggesting that we should suspend judgement on that assumption and proceed with a
holistic assessment. In particular, this provides for an examination of the assumed site
from a wide range of perspectives prior to evaluating the extent to which criteria for
nomination might be justified. I feel sure such a process would result in many more
sites being recognised for both cultural and natural values.

Table 2: Towards a more holistic approach . . .

• National/Regional Context • National / Regional History
• Landforms & Geodiversity • Population ethnicity and movements
• Water and Air • Opportunities and Constraints
• Subterranean Landforms • Pre-historic cultural evolution
• Cave Contents • Historic cultural evolution
• Surface Biodiversity • Contemporary cultural evolution
• Subterranean Biodiversity

Following both natural and cultural assessments as above:

• Set system boundaries

• Evaluate extent to which criteria are met by this site
The Question of Site Boundaries

Another related and important issue for both natural and cultural heritage is the
determination of site boundaries. We are probably all aware that site boundaries are
often constrained by pre-existing land tenures, but they are also often constrained by
proceeding from prima facie assumptions without wider assessment.

One of the criteria of site integrity laid down (World Heritage Centre, 1999) at least
for natural heritage, argues that a site “should contain all or most of the key
interrelated and interdependent elements in their natural relationships; for example, an
‘ice age’ area should include the snow field, the glacier itself and samples of cutting
patterns, deposition and colonization (e.g. striations, moraines, pioneer stages of plant
succession, etc.); in the case of volcanoes, the magmatic series should be complete and
all or most of the varieties of effusive rocks and types of eruptions be represented”.

In the example of karst, this means that the site boundaries should enclose the
watershed that feeds the site and the evidence of drainage from it in the form of
springs or other discharge. In examining this issue, it has to be recognised that the
subterranean watershed may be larger than the surface watershed, and the
groundwater may well flow under surface divides.

Two examples will suffice to emphasise the point. Do note that I am only describing
the boundary problem as it stands and not suggesting any necessary neglect of the
issue in planning.

The first is the Purnululu Quartzite karst of Western Australia. Australia’s largest
cave in quartzite, and probably even one of the most spectacular examples of the karst
process in quartzite, lies only a short distance outside of the site boundary.

The second and more complex example is the old city of Luang Prabang in the Lao
PDR. Firstly, the centuries-old religious site of Tham Thing lies outside of the site
boundary, even though the cave was a fundamentally important part of the religious
infrastructure of the old Kingdom. At the same time, a holistic assessment of the site
would almost certainly have included the spectacular karst with its massive travertine
deposits within the site as a valuable natural heritage area.


Of course, continuing improvements are being made to World Heritage policies and
procedures. These include closer co-operation between IUCN and ICOMOS in the
assessment process. However, I contend that all sites should be subject to a more
holistic process and that even though many will doubtless remain as either natural or
cultural sites, at least managers will have a better basis to ensure the effectiveness of
their task.

The advantages are probably clear; the challenge is to develop a sense of and capacity
for holistic thinking among those responsible for the processes of heritage
identification and management.

Davey, A. (1984) Evaluation Criteria for the Cave and Karst Heritage of Australia.
Helictite, 15 (2): 18-19.

Hamilton-Smith, E., Kiernan, K. & Spate, A. (1998) Karst Management

Considerations for the Cape Range Karst Province Western Australia. Perth, WA:
Department of Environmental Protection.

Kiernan, K. (1995). An Atlas of Tasmanian Karst. Tasmanian Forest Research

Council Inc., Hobart. Vol. 1, p. 18-47.

Langer, W.H. & Kolm, K.E. (2000) Hierarchical Systems Analysis in Karst Terrains.
United States Geological Survey, Open File Report 00-429 (CD-Rom).

UNESCO: World Heritage Centre (1999). Operational Guidelines for the

Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. WHC.99/2