LONDON The world's biggest mining companies called on Monday for action to stop any firms, including the oil and gas industry, extracting resources from natural sites protected by the United Nations.
In 2003, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), which groups 23 firms including BHP Billiton, Rio, Anglo American and Glencore, agreed to halt mining in World Heritage Sites as part of a remit to make mining more sustainable.
"Yet 13 years later, other companies and industries are still operating in these precious sites," ICMM CEO Tom Butler told the Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Hawaii.
"The ecosystems that underpin our economies, well-being and survival are collapsing," he wrote in a blog. "The message is clear: we need urgent and collaborative action."
Royal Dutch Shell was the only oil and gas firm to join the ICMM in 2003 in making heritage sites "a no go area" and on Monday it reaffirmed its pledge. French oil firm Total and Tullow Oil have also made a commitment.
But other big oil companies have not followed suit and the ICMM, whose members are responsible for about a third of global metal production, have also failed to recruit the rest of their industry to pledge to respect U.N. protected sites.
UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) said 59 out of 203 protected sites had been formally reported to the World Heritage Committee as facing a threat from extractive industries.
Apart from government bans, UNESCO said private sector action could be effective. For instance, funding bodies could withhold cash for development in sensitive areas.
Among governments, Australia and South Africa out of the 192 countries that ratified the World Heritage convention have enshrined this protection in domestic legislation.
The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers, which collectively produce more than a third of the world's oil and gas, said in a statement, "our members' operations are carried out complying with the relevant legislation".
It said new technology could minimize the drilling footprint, for instance by horizontal drilling.
One threatened area is Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Democratic Republic of Congo, which is a habitat of exceptional biodiversity and home to endangered gorillas, elephants and other species.
British oil company Soco International said in November it no longer held the exploration license for a block, of which about half lies within Virunga, after ceasing operations following human rights protests and a campaign by conservation group WWF.
Conservationists say Virunga is still vulnerable. Apart from oil exploration rights, its mineral wealth includes gold, diamonds, tantalum, used in mobile phones, and tin, WWF said.
(additional reporting by Susan Taylor in Toronto; editing by David Clarke)