New UNESCO programme recognises the UK’s seven ‘Global Geoparks’

UNESCO – the United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture – has announced a new programme, which creates “UNESCO Global Geoparks.” This is the first new UNESCO designation of its kind to be established in over 40 years and puts Global Geoparks alongside UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Previously operating with the informal support of UNESCO, the status of Global Geoparks will now be formally recognised under the new programme. The new designation was approved at the 38th Session of the UNESCO General Conference in Paris on 17th November.

The UK is home to seven UNESCO Global Geoparks, stretching from the English Riviera in the South to Geopark Shetland in the North, and including two in Wales and a cross-border UNESCO Global Geopark shared by Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The UK sites are part of a growing international network of Global Geoparks – areas of outstanding geological interest which use their unique geology to drive community development.

The UK’s UNESCO Global Geoparks have already brought millions of pounds of investment to their local areas, generating an estimated £8.7 million from April 2014 to March 2015 through their involvement with the Global Geoparks Network according to a new study conducted by the UK National Commission for UNESCO, that is due to be released later this year.

enlarge Geopark Shetland has levered in close on £500,000 of funding from outside Shetland to deliver interpretive and educational projects and promotional activities, most recently securing funding from the Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme for a three year project ‘Drifting Apart’ in partnership with Geoparks from Canada, Iceland, Norway and Ireland.

The Geopark, currently core funded by the Scottish Government, has developed a wide range of tourism infrastructure to support the industry throughout the islands including an app for Android and iPhone, 2 visitor trail guides with associated on-site interpretation and geo-art, 3 Geowalls, 2 Geo-art projects, 2 Museum exhibitions, 17 interpretive panels dealing in part or wholly with geology, souvernir items and an endorsement scheme for providers of geological tours / services. The Geopark also leads on coordinating the annual Shetland Nature Festival in partnership with the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage.

The award of the UNESCO brand is expected to further enhance the work of Geopark Shetland, helping to create new international funding and partnership opportunities, attract national and international visitors, and raise awareness of the UK’s unique geological heritage.

The UK government – through the UK Permanent Delegation to UNESCO, UK National Commission for UNESCO and the UK Global Geoparks Forum in partnership with other member states – helped to lead the process for Global Geoparks to become a formal UNESCO designation.

Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs, Rory Stewart MP said: "This is the most fantastic news. It gives us a great international profile. Connecting our geological heritage and literally our bedrock with our community and economy is a very exciting opportunity. The work Geoparks do locally, and their new UNESCO status, could inspire people for years to come."

VisitBritain Chief Executive Sally Balcombe said: “This is exciting news and a real accolade for the seven Global Geoparks, as well as the communities who sustain them. The United Kingdom is rich in natural beauty and VisitBritain works hard to showcase the diversity and accessibility of our countryside and coast to inspire international visitors to explore further than well-trodden paths. This year we launched our Countryside is GREAT campaign to increase international visits across all our nations and regions, and the breadth and beauty of the Geoparks will provide significant opportunities for visitors to explore the UK’s incredible geological heritage and contribute to local economies.”

Geologist and broadcaster Professor Iain Stewart who is Director, Sustainable Earth Institute at Plymouth University said: "I'm a huge fan of the Geoparks. They are a wonderful natural showcase for how the rocks underfoot continue to shape our economies and our cultures. We have them scattered across the UK and Ireland, a testament to the breadth of fantastic geology we have beneath our backyards and the important role they play as local gateways to connect with ordinary people about how our planet works and how they should care about what is happening to it".

UK National Commission for UNESCO’s Natural Sciences Director, Dr. Beth Taylor said: “The UK’s seven UNESCO Global Geoparks are a national treasure, not just in terms of their geological interest but the enthusiasm and dedication of their local champions who work so hard to maintain them and to make the most of the educational and economic opportunities they offer. They are a great illustration of local communities working very effectively in some of the most remote and beautiful areas of the UK. But I appreciate that they are also a bit of a national secret, not widely recognised by visitors or even by many of those who live within their boundaries. I hope that the UNESCO brand will give our Global Geoparks the same recognition factor as World Heritage Sites – a visible guarantee of their international significance and an assurance that they are great places to visit and explore.”

Chair of UK Global Geoparks Forum Melanie Border said: "This incredible recognition reflects the dedication and commitment of all of the UNESCO Global Geopark communities in the UK and around the world. It is about geology, but it's not just about the rocks but about how we use that geology to make a difference to life locally, economically and socially. We are feeling very proud of this formal UNESCO recognition and looking forward to making the most of the opportunities it presents”.

Local spokesmen for Geopark Shetland also commented.

Jimmy Moncrieff, General Manager of Shetland Amenity Trust, the managing organisation for Geopark Shetland, said: “This is a wonderful achievement for Shetland to receive UNESCO recognition for its world class geology. It is a prestigious accolade which everyone in Shetland should be proud of. I would like to sincerely thank everyone who has worked so very hard to bring this to fruition”.

Brian Gregson, Chairman of Shetland Amenity Trust, said: "It is exactly ten years since the Shetland Island Council agreed that Shetland should seek membership of what was then the European Geopark Network. Today’s announcement means that Geopark Shetland, administered by the Shetland Amenity Trust (SAT) for the last eight years, is now a member of the UNESCO Global Geopark Programme. This tremendous achievement is the result of hard work, dedication and commitment and I heartily congratulate all those involved. My hope is that this new designation will release adequate and secure core funding for Geopark Shetland to enable us to continue properly to represent Shetland’s amazing geological heritage on the global stage and to develop further opportunities for our communities to benefit from it.”

Geopark Shetland will be marking this important announcement with events throughout 2016 and details will be released in due course.

FACTS AND FIGURES

• 357,000 people live in a Geopark in the UK, and the Geoparks receive over 17.5 million visitors each year. Becoming a formal UNESCO programme is expected to raise the profile of the Geoparks among visitors and residents alike, encouraging them to play a more active role in looking after their shared, geological heritage and gain a greater understanding of the key issues and challenges facing society in the context of our dynamic planet.

• The UK’s Global Geoparks generated an estimated £8.7 million from April 2014 to March 2015 through their involvement with the Global Geoparks Network. Being able to leverage the UNESCO brand and its global network is expected to enhance this sum, according to a new study undertaken by the UK National Commission for UNESCO that will be released in December.

• The UK is due to host the International Global Geoparks Conference in September 2016. With the expected 800 delegates descending on the sea-side region of the English Riviera over five days, the conference is expected to bring over £1.6 million in visitor spend to the local economy.

• Geoparks are first and foremost about communities and people, not just geology