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Revisiting requirements and criteria to select UNESCO Global Geoparks

By Mamoon Allan (IAPG-Jordan Coordinator, The University of Jordan, Amman, Jordan)

UNESCO has contributed to the establishment of standards for the foundation of a list of geoparks in the world. The initial discussion on geoparks and geosites started in 1996; thus, UNESCO and the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) launched the concept of geosite in that year. These two organizations established the programs 'Geosite and Geopark', in order to progress their development in rural and regional contexts (Tapiador, 2007). The difference between a geosite and geopark is that a geosite is “a small-sized place of geological heritage,” whereas a geopark is a large-scale place that may contain other types of attraction and heritages, such as the archaeological, ecological, historical, and cultural ones (Tapiador, 2007). The UNESCO’s Global Geoparks Network (2006) has defined a geopark as: A nationally protected area containing a number of geological heritage sites of particular importance, rarity, or aesthetic appeal. These Earth heritage sites are part of an integrated concept of protection, education, and sustainable development. A Geopark achieves its goals through a three-pronged approach: conservation, education, and geological tourism. Nevertheless, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Biosphere Reserves, World Heritage Sites, Ramsar Wetlands and Marine Reserves are the five international designations for protected areas (Prato & Fagre, 2005). According to IUCN a protected area can be defined as “Geographical space, recognized, dedicated, and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values (IUCN, 2011). UNESCO has also established the criteria for a geopark, to be included in the Global Network of National Geoparks. Those criteria include six requirements as follows (UNESCO, 2008):

1. Size and setting: according to UNESCO criteria, the main requirement of the size and setting for a geopark membership includes a region with “well-defined limits” and adequate space area, which can serve the different activities of the local economy and “cultural development (mainly through tourism)”. However, the values of geopark are not only based on the geological features, but also on the ecological, archaeological, historical, and cultural significance.

2. Management and local involvement: the success of the geopark is based on the effective management of the site, the qualified human resources, and sufficient financial sources. Furthermore, involvement of the local community adjacent to the geopark in tourism development plays a vital role in the success of its management. The partnership of, and the cooperation among, all stakeholders in the geopark can enhance the efforts of its development and generate more chances for the success of the geopark management.

3. Economic development: one of the major purposes of establishing a geopark is improving the economic development in an area and contributing to the sustainable development within that area. Geotourism development is an amalgam of geological conservation, economical activities and supporting financial resources of the local community. Thus, “Geotourism is an economic, success-oriented and fast-moving discipline, a new tourist business sector involving strong multidisciplinary cooperation”.

4. Education: the educational purposes of a geopark are essential. Therefore, geopark offers many tools to raise awareness about the importance of the geological heritage and environmental knowledge of the communities. As result, museums, educational centres, trails, guided tours, popular materials and maps, and different types of communication media can enhance the knowledge about geoscentifics. Moreover, geopark activities can also improve scientific research.

5. Protection and conservation: a geopark is an essential means to protect its special geological features. There is a concord between geopark activities and the local regulations and legislations. However, a geopark can support the different activities of conservation of its geological features, for example, “representative rocks, mineral resources, minerals, fossils, landforms and landscapes”.

6. The Global Network: this represents a vital tool to connect experts, researchers, and practitioners in the diverse geological fields. UNESCO plays a major role in supporting this cooperation and partnership between the community and personnel involved in the geopark activities. Whilst UNESCO established the basics of the Geopark movement in 1999, the concept of geoparks was developed directly after the foundation of both the European Geoparks Networks (EGN) and the Chinese National Geoparks Network in 2000. Currently, the list of Global Network of National Geoparks has increased to 177 geoparks in 44 member states in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America in 2022.

Marinos (2001) considers that the scope of the World Heritage List is too limited for some outstanding geological sites. The different aspects of the geological heritage and Earth science exceed the capacity for the World Heritage list. It is also appropriate to found ‘a World Network of Geosites/Geoparks’. Whilst Dowling and Newsome (2006, p. 113) stresses that the contribution of UNESCO in the geopark movement is essential to increasing “public awareness for geological heritage issues.” Thereby it also supports global recognition of geotourism and is having an efficient political effect.

Notwithstanding the importance of the UNESCO geopark list, it has raised some confusion and mix-up with the World Heritage List, which incorporates “properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage which the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding universal value” (UNESCO, 2011). It is believed that it is inadequate to consider this list as a “mainstream UNESCO project”, rather it is a logical growth of the World Heritage List (Gray, 2004, p. 193).

Accordingly, the map of the Global Network of National Geoparks show that a large proportion of the global tourism market is concentrated in the most rich countries, particularly, in Europe and the rate of the developing countries in the list of UNESCO Geoparks list is very limited. Africa and the Middle East have small number of nominated geoparks as well.

UNESCO needs to help the poor countries to protect and sustain their geoheritage. The requirements and criteria selection for geoparks need to be revised and updated to meet the last developments in the context of tourism industry and technology.


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