On 21 June 2013 at 11:45, Etna was proclaimed a World Heritage Site. The ancient headquarters of Parco dell’Etna, the ex-Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolò La Rena in Nicolosi, received this much-awaited piece of news from Cambodia: Etna, “a Muntagna”, was now a proud member of the World Heritage List. The World Heritage Committee, meeting in Phnom Penh, was unanimous in adding Europe’s tallest active volcano to the list. On the day of the Summer Solstice, Etna finally became a World Heritage Site, achieving an ambitious project that had begun twenty years earlier. It was the fourth natural site in Italy (after the Dolomites, the Aeolian Islands and Monte San Giorgio) to be given this extraordinary recognition.
The official reason
The “Mount Etna” site was added to the World Heritage List according to Criterion VIII of the ten stated in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. According to number VIII, the site of outstanding universal value must “be an outstanding example representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features”. This is the reason for adding Etna: “Mount Etna is one of the world’s most active and iconic volcanoes, and an outstanding example of ongoing geological processes and volcanic landforms. The stratovolcano is characterized by almost continuous eruptive activity from its summit craters and fairly frequent lava flow eruptions from craters and fissures on its flanks. This exceptional volcanic activity has been documented by humans for at least 2,700 years – making it one of the world’s longest documented records of historical volcanism. The diverse and accessible assemblage of volcanic features such as summit craters, cinder cones, lava flows, lava caves and the Valle de Bove depression have made Mount Etna a prime destination for research and education. Today Mount Etna is one of the best-studied and monitored volcanoes in the world, and continues to influence volcanology, geophysics and other earth science disciplines. Mount Etna’s notoriety, scientific importance, and cultural and educational value are of global significance. To better understand the “outstanding universal value” that led to UNESCO recognition it should be said, first of all, that the Mount Etna site includes the 19,237 hectares of Parco dell’Etna. With an altitude of 3,340 metres above sea level, Etna is Italy’s highest mountain south of the Alps and the highest mountain in the central Mediterranean area or of any of the Mediterranean islands. The candidate site covers the highest area of Etna, which is uninhabited. Etna is the world’s most active volcano in terms of eruption frequency, and it is also Europe’s highest volcano. Its predominant morphological characteristic is the Valle del Bove, a vast depression on the eastern slope of the volcano, created by the collapse of a side, thousands of years ago and which is now a window on the volcano’s history. Etna is also the largest composite basaltic volcano and covers an area of some 1,250 km2 above sea level. There are scientific documents on Etna dating back to the 17th century. In the 19th century, famous European scientists, including Charles Lyell and Sartorius von Waltershausen, carried out research on the volcano and Waltershausen’s map, dating back to the first half of the 19th century, represents the geological map of a large volcano.
The path towards nomination for inclusion in the WHL
The first step that a member country needs to take when proposing one of its sites for inclusion in the World Heritage List, is to make an inventory of the most important cultural and natural sites of outstanding universal value within its borders, which are suitable for inclusion on the list. This inventory is known as the Tentative List. A site must be included on the Tentative List at least one year before a nomination can be submitted. Every year, States Parties can submit a candidate cultural or mixed site chosen from those on its Tentative List.
For Etna, therefore, the path officially began in January 2011, with the Italian government’s proposal to include Mount Etna on its Tentative List and its subsequent inclusion by UNESCO. It continued with the presentation of the nomination document through a complex formal procedure that includes a group of subjects; it was presented on 1 February 2012 at the World Heritage Centre in Paris, for revision and to audit the document for completeness. The nomination was only progressed a year after inclusion on the Tentative List, which is the minimum time necessary. Once considered complete, the nomination was sent by UNESCO to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) which is the consultation body for assessment in the case of nominations for natural sites. The IUCN appointed more than ten experts to assess the nomination, including Bastian Bertzky, German geographer with a masters in “Conservation Biology”, who was sent to make the assessments on site in October 2012. The field mission included a programme of visits that was first examined by the Ministry for the Environment, then checked, on site, together with an expert from the Ministry and finally sent to the IUCN. Following reports from experts and the results of the field mission, the UICN was able to provide its own assessment. Once a site has been proposed for nomination and then assessed, the task of coming to a final decision on inclusion is passed to the Intergovernmental World Heritage Committee.
Inclusion of Mount Etna
On 21 June 2013 the World Heritage Committee added the natural site of “Mount Etna” to the UNESCO list of the world’s natural heritage. The area this covers is almost exclusively Zone A, the integral reserve area of the park, which includes the most important natural and geological features of Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano. In this area, the natural environment is conserved in its integrity, with all of its natural features, which is the core zone of the UNESCO site. The core zone is surrounded and protected by a larger area, known as the buffer zone”. Parco dell’Etna includes 9 SIC (Community Interest Sites) and 4 SIC/ZPS (Community Interest Sites/Special Protection Zones) which represent 77% of the UNESCO site. The majority of the core zone, since the Park was established, was already public property, owned by Municipal Councils or State Forests Agency. After Parco dell’Etna was established, two important purchases of land that had remained private property were completed, meaning that the whole area registered with UNESCO is public property, with precise, well-marked boundaries..