Saving Shared Heritage: The Clock Is Ticking…


By Vivian Liu

What comes to your mind when you think of a UNESCO World Heritage site? The tranquility of Angkor Wat? The breathtaking beauty of the Grand Canyon? Or, for most Singaporeans, it is probably the exquisite design of our very own Botanic Gardens. In fact, there is a  total of 1031 UNESCO World Heritage sites across the globe honoring some of the world’s most spectacular natural and manmade wonders. 

Covering approximately 0.5% of the Earth’s surface, natural World Heritage sites benefit the livelihood of nearly 11 million living in or near the sites.  They bring in substantial amount of profit to the local communities through tourism, recreation and the export of resources.

In order to preserve the heritage for our future generation, UNESCO calls on both the local and international communities to contribute in the conservation of these sites regardless of territorial boundaries. The reason behind is simple – any damage, if incurred, could be irreversible.

However, a recent report published by WWF concludes that nearly half of the 229 natural World Heritage sites are threatened by harmful industrial activities, despite their protected status.

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Orang utan high in tree of rainforest canopy, (Pongo abelii) Leuser NP, IndonesiaThe Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra houses some of Southeast Asia’s most precious animal species such as Orangutan

Consisting of three National Parks, the majestic Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra covers nearly 25 million hectares of land with more than 10,000 plant and animal species including the endemic orangutan, rhino and tiger. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004 and was later included in the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2011.

While Sumatra may seem less of a concern for Singaporeans since it is not situated within our national boundary, here are three reasons why it is important and relevant for us to preserve the site:


Apart from its importance in conserving the archipelago’s biodiversity, the rainforest is also crucial to the well-being of those who depend on it for food and income. In fact, out of the 11 million whose lives are supported by the natural heritage sites, 6 million are living in or near the rainforest.

Due to increasing demand in palm oil and timber however, poorly-regulated logging and land-clearing practices are causing large-scale deforestation in Sumatra, threatening local residents’ trading way of life.

Talang Mamak people. Woman weaving. Their trading way of life is threatened by forest clearance for oil palm plantations. Rantaulangsat Village, Bukit Tigapuluh, Sumatra Indonesia.Woman weaving. The local residents’ trading way of life is threatened by forest clearance for oil palm plantations.


The damage doesn’t just stay within the boundary. Its impact can cross geographical borders and cause regional environmental disasters. The 2015 Southeast Asian Haze, which affected several countries in Southeast Asia including Singapore, was a painful episode.

Haze pollution not only threatened our health, but also brought about economic loss to our country. It caused an estimated economic loss of S$700 million in Singapore and was largely a result of the forest fires triggered by the “slash-and-burn” method practiced by unsustainable oil palm and pulp and paper plantations..

A general view of a housing estate covered by haze in Singapore. The haze was the result of illegal burning of forests and other land on Sumatra island in Indonesia‚ to make way for palm oil plantations and is causing Singaporeans to experience physical discomfort migraines, burning eyes, rashes, dry throats and runny noses and in cases of weaker individuals, asthma attacks and respiratory issues. Some offices and businesses have even suspended operations, to ensure their employees and customers are not exposed to the hazardous haze. Singapore‚'s air pollution soared to a record of 401 on the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI).The 2015 Southeast Asian Haze was detrimental to various affected countries including Singapore.


Deforestation in Sumatra is a global concern.

The clearing of forested area has severely damaged the habitat of critically-endangered animal species, pushing them towards the brink of extinction. As of today, there remains only 7300 Sumatran orangutans and as few as 400 Sumatran tigers, all are holding on for survival in forests that are slowly disappearing. The loss of biodiversity affects the interdependent ecosystem as a whole and it should be stopped in order to protect everyone on Earth.

Deforestation also contributes to climate change. When trees are cut down, the carbon that was previously absorbed and stored by the forests is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. On top of that, large amount of carbon dioxide is generated from the burning of trees, releasing even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases are one of the leading culprits of climate change and up to a fifth of global emissions come from deforestation.

Illegal logging for paper industry and forest clearing for Palm oil plantation. TESSO NILO Plantation Riau, Sumatra, IndonesiaDeforestation is a global concern.

As residents on this planet, we all share the responsibilities to keep these wonders safe so that they can continue to benefit our future generations in years to come. Over the years, we have witnessed numbers of successful conservation stories.

A Success Story

The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the Philippines, is one of them. In order to tackle overfishing, the Philippine government made the site a protected zone to regulate fishing around the area. The policy has resulted in a dramatic increase in fish stocks, tourism, and incomes for local communities. It is an excellent example showing how these World Heritage sites can be protected while ensuring sustainable local development.


WWF-Singapore has long been dedicating our efforts and resources to conservation work in Sumatra. But there is still a lot more to be done as exploitation continues.

If you care for Sumatra as much as we do, there are a few ways to contribute to the conservation of this beautiful World Heritage site:

  • Plant and name your own trees in Sumatra. (
  • Sign the Peat-ition to stop the burning on peatlands. (
  • Choose only certified sustainable products such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper.
  • Look out for products made with sustainable palm oil, and ask retailers and manufacturers if they’re committed to using it.

Harmful industrial activities could easily destroy our shared heritage in a flash, but it is never easy to put it back together. Let’s start doing our part today to safeguard and celebrate these treasures of the world, before it’s too late.

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