From nature protection to natural heritage: a vision to be developed

In Europe, initiatives to safeguard our cultural heritage are multiplying: European Heritage Days, museums, public or private funds dedicated to restoring works of art and historic buildings, etc. However, there is another type of heritage that deserves just as much attention: our natural heritage, this living and precious legacy that we must preserve with equal care.

A worldwide reduction in natural areas

In 1972, UNESCO included nature within the scope of the World Heritage Convention, which has become one of the most effective international instruments for preserving the planet's extraordinary natural sites [1]. This initiative was a response to the urgent need to preserve biodiversity at a time when the loss of natural areas was accelerating: a million species are threatened with extinction and 85% of wetlands have disappeared [2].

In addition, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) has warned of the accelerating erosion of the world's natural heritage. Of the 6,000 or so plants historically grown for food, fewer than 200 are now cultivated [3]. Even more extreme is the fact that 66% of the world's plant production consists of just 9 species*.

Added to this is the massive destruction of forests, estimated at 10 million hectares every year. This has a direct impact on the global and human equilibrium, exacerbating existing problems linked to climate change.

Yet the many benefits of natural sites are well established. First and foremost, they form a natural barrier, helping to reduce the risks and impact of natural disasters [4]. Similarly, the 69 million hectares of forests in this heritage absorb around 190 million tonnes of CO2 every year [5]. This is equivalent to around 45% of France's CO2 emissions in 2022.  Finally, in the field of health, research has shown that people living near green spaces have a reduced risk of depression and anxiety.

Natural heritage: a legacy to preserve for future generations

Talking about heritage when referring to nature is far from meaningless, since the term includes the dimension of transmission: what we leave to future generations. Although new legal and symbolic texts have followed UNESCO's lead - including the Council of Europe's Landscape Convention [6] and the Bern Convention [7] - there is still much to be done to preserve our essential natural capital.

Natural heritage includes ecological, faunistic, floristic, geological, pedological, mineralogical and palaeontological resources. Because they are precious to us, they deserve as much attention as any other element of our heritage. It is therefore essential that we take action and develop our approach by extending the heritage approach initiated by UNESCO.

Concrete actions to engage, inspire and safeguard

Whether on a global, national, regional or individual scale, there are many creative and positive initiatives contributing to the conservation and development of natural sites. These initiatives, which are often costly and complex, need support and recognition if they are to succeed in their mission. These projects often also include a component to educate and raise awareness among all generations about biodiversity, its benefits, its role and its necessity.

This is the case with the Prix du Patrimoine Naturel ("Natural Heritage Prize") that I have created within the Fondation Etrillard, which I want to position as a player in environmental patronage. Our aim is to support the funding of projects that provide solutions to issues as wide-ranging as water shortages, the rehabilitation of farmland and the development of agroforestry zones. Among other things, the projects we support provide practical solutions to cleaning up land so that it can be put back into a virtuous circle, or develop innovative methods for growing crops and feeding people.

Because it is alive, this heritage must be treated differently, by interacting with it, not to control it, but to allow it to express all its richness. We need to look at preservation from a positive angle, showing that we can take action. It's through initiatives like the one I'm running with the Fondation Etrillard that we can encourage people to take up the cause and offer the general public an educational and useful message, free from eco-anxiety.

Eglantine Petit - Fondation Etrillard

*sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soya, oil palm, beetroot, sugar and manioc

[1] Source: Centre du patrimoine mondial - Patrimoine mondial naturel

[2] Rapport IPBES 2019

[3] Convention du Conseil de l’Europe sur le paysage (Conseil de l'Europe)

[4] Convention du patrimoine mondial

[5] Bibliothèque numérique UNESDOC

[6] Convention du Conseil de l’Europe sur le paysage

[7] Convention de Berne