By Henry Samuel
The slag heaps of France’s northern mining region have become the latest, unlikely addition to Unesco’s world heritage list, rivalling global wonders like the Taj Mahal, the Great Barrier Reef and the Pyramids.
Local politicians hailed the inclusion of the Nord-Pas de Calais mining basin on the coveted list as a victory for the depressed region still struggling to recover from the demise of its three centuries-old coal industry.
They hope the new title will turn the region’s slag heaps, but also its mining pits, railway stations, workers estates and mining villages into tourist attractions that will boost the local economy.
Unesco defined the region as an “organically evolved” cultural landscape, part of a list of “distinct geographical areas or properties uniquely representing the combined work of nature and of man”.
The 120km-long “landscape” includes 87 mining villages, 51 slag heaps, some of them covering 90 hectares and exceeding 140 metres in height.
Included in the site are its specially-designed mining schools, religious buildings, health and community facilities, company premises, owners and managers’ houses and town halls.
“The site bears testimony to the quest to create model workers’ cities from the middle of the 19th century to the 1960s and further illustrates a significant period in the history of industrial Europe”, said Unesco after the decision in Saint Petersburg on Saturday that split the jury.
“It documents the living conditions of workers and the solidarity to which it gave rise.”
Placing the mining basin on a par with the Great Wall of China or the Mont Saint-Michel, France, was no mean feat and followed a seven-year lobbying campaign by local mining officials.
In their sales pitch, mining campaigners wrote: “Unesco celebrates the pyramids built by the pharaohs while some slag heaps, the fruit of miners’ labours, are just as high!”
They also argued that the heaps were environmental oases: “These coal mountains are natural places that shelter an extraordinarily rich ecosystem. They were long presented as a negative symbol, but today they have their role to play.”
Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille and Socialist Party leader hailed the decision as “a tribute to all those who worked to develop our economy, our industry, often at the cost of their health or their life.”
“They leave a heritage, a history, but also values that we continue to carry.”
Frédéric Kowalski, of the association of slag heap chains, said: “For some, to erase the sinister landscape of the old industry was a necessity. But today, things have changed.”
In a separate decision, Unesco granted endangered World Heritage status to the site seen by Christians as Jesus’s birthplace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem despite objections from the United States and Israel.
The 4th century Church of Nativity is built over a grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus was born.
The Palestinian Authority’s request included part of the Pilgrimage Route, the path which tradition says Joseph and Mary took into the city in their trek from Nazareth 2,000 years ago.
Israeli officials had questioned the need for Bethlehem to be registered as an endangered site and see Palestinian moves at UNESCO and other UN bodies as an effort to embarrass Israel on the world stage.