Monday, 18 May 2015

Botanic Gardens' bid to be listed as World Heritage Site - one step closer

UNESCO-appointed panel recommends gardens; Singapore taking more steps to protect site
By Melody Zaccheus, The Sunday Times, 17 May 2015

Extra steps will be taken to ensure that the Botanic Gardens is adequately protected, even as the historic site took a major leap towards being recognised as a World Heritage Site.

In a report published online just after midnight yesterday, a UNESCO-appointed panel, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), gave its recommendation to the gardens' bid. This is the next-to-last step towards being put on the list. Now it is left to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to say yes.

The report also detailed how the gardens' conservation efforts and buffer zone could be strengthened, for instance by developing monitoring indicators for development and tourism.

In a joint statement yesterday, the National Parks Board (NParks) and National Heritage Board (NHB) noted that a comprehensive management plan is already in place.

They said there are plans to increase the frequency of inspections of the gardens' historical buildings by a professional engineer from once every five years to once every two years.

They added that the buffer zone around the proposed 49ha heritage site falls under the Urban Redevelopment Authority's height control area, which ensures that no new development will be visible within a 1km radius from the heart of the gardens.

A site evaluation will be conducted as well at the end of next year to evaluate visitor impact, and fences will be installed around some of its heritage trees to reduce excessive trampling.

ICOMOS also noted that while Singapore has well-developed planning and development systems, it lacks mandatory environmental impact assessments in the planning process.

The ICOMOS report has given Singapore's chances of having its first World Heritage Site a massive boost, since it got on the tentative list in December 2012. A recommendation is the best of four possible outcomes from ICOMOS' technical assessment of the 156-year-old site. It means there is a high chance that the UNESCO World Heritage Committee will approve the gardens' nomination when it meets in Bonn, Germany late next month or in early July, as the assessment outcome will have a major bearing on its final decision.

It is unlikely that Singapore will have to respond to the ICOMOS recommendations at the upcoming Bonn meeting since the final decision whether to list the gardens does not hinge on the implementation of these suggestions, said NParks and NHB.

Said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong: "This is a very positive step forward for our bid, and it goes to show that in the eyes of international experts, the gardens has a strong case to qualify as a UNESCO World Heritage Site."

After Singapore submitted a nomination dossier justifying its bid in January last year, an ICOMOS technical assessor spent three days in Singapore last September to evaluate the gardens.

If successfully listed, it will join two other UNESCO-listed gardens: The 1759 Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, and the 1545 Orto botanico di Padova in Padua, Italy.

Nature Society president Shawn Lum described the recommendation as an endorsement of Singapore's natural preservation and heritage efforts by the international community. Referring to the bid, heritage conservation expert Johannes Widodo said: "It's a statement from the state of Singapore that we are ready to take this responsibility forward. It's a commitment we are making, to keep the gardens for the sake of mankind."

A World Heritage Site would also boost the Republic's tourism industry. Dr Nigel Taylor, director of the 74ha gardens, expects six million visits a year in 2021, up from 4.4 million now, if the bid is successful.

Said Ngee Ann Polytechnic's senior tourism lecturer Michael Chiam: "Just like any UNESCO site, tourists would... include the gardens as part of their itinerary and it will become another avenue to promote Singapore."

To be on the World Heritage Site list, sites must have outstanding universal value and meet at least one of 10 criteria. The gardens fulfils two, related to historical landscape and its role in the interchange of human values.

Singapore Heritage Society honorary secretary Yeo Kang Shua said the ICOMOS recommendations are constructive. "We can see that they are not only concerned with the protection of the site per se, but also potential external threats to the historic property in the future."

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Panel highlights gardens' role in region's rubber trade
By Melody Zaccheus, The Sunday Times, 17 May 2015

A UNESCO-appointed panel, which recommended that the Singapore Botanic Gardens be listed as a World Heritage Site, praised it as an "exceptional example" of a British tropical colonial botanic garden in South-east Asia.

And it highlighted the pivotal role the gardens played in the rubber trade in the region.

Compared to other such gardens in places such as Hong Kong, Penang and India, Singapore has kept its original features intact, said the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). It is also relatively well-resourced.

The ICOMOS report is a response to the dossier submitted by Singapore in January last year for its bid to have the 156-year-old gardens listed as a World Heritage Site.

After a visit by an ICOMOS assessor last September, Singapore was asked to send in more information on aspects such as the gardens' boundaries, development, and its protection and management plan. These were submitted a month later in October.

In its report, ICOMOS said most of the Republic's justifications to be listed were "adequate", noting that the gardens' main threats were developments or changes in land use, environmental pressures and tourism.

It said that the gardens has a well-defined and well-preserved cultural landscape, including 47 heritage trees and 17 historic landmarks such as Holttum Hall, the Bandstand and the Swan Lake Gazebo.

The gardens also illustrates the interchange of values connected to ideas, knowledge and expertise in tropical and economic botany and horticulture.

For instance, the gardens was where rubber cultivation and extraction were perfected.

The report said that while the 1759 Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England provided the initial rubber seedlings, it was the Singapore Botanic Gardens which "provided the conditions for their planting, mass-multiplication, experimentation, agro-industrial development and eventual distribution" to South-east Asia and beyond.

As such, "by 1920 Malaya was producing half the world's latex harvest". In addition, China's rapidly growing rubber industry in Yunnan province today has its origin in trees supplied from Singapore in 1904.

The report further highlighted how the gardens is home to seven "very old specimens" of African oil palm, and two heritage white gutta percha trees that were planted by the first director, Henry Ridley, in 1897 to protect them from extinction.

Law professor Kevin Tan, the president of ICOMOS Singapore, believes Singapore's "dossier was very well done and cogently argued".

Nature Society president Shawn Lum considers the recommendation a "victory" for Singapore's gardens and an affirmation of the people who first set up the gardens more than a century ago.

ICOMOS said that the gardens has played an integral role in the social history of Singapore, providing a backdrop for the lives of its residents for a continued sense of place and identity.

Gardens' director Nigel Taylor said this could be traced back to the 19th century, when Singapore was a "Wild West town", and its jungles rife with unruly Chinese headmen, snakes, tigers and disease.

"So families went to the Botanic Gardens where respectable families introduced boys to girls for arranged marriages and it was where families went to relax," he said.

New guidebook for Botanic Gardens
It will sell book at its shop, give it to schools after Unesco bid results are out
By Feng Zengkun, Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 23 May 2015

WANT to learn more about the Singapore Botanic Gardens?

A new guidebook on the 156-year-old attraction will be sold at its Gardens Shop and given to schools shortly after it learns the results of its Unesco World Heritage Site bid late next month or early July.

The book of about 100 pages will have write-ups of the gardens' plants, animals, people and buildings, and showcase how it is a haven for biodiversity.

People will also be able to learn more about its themed areas such as the Ginger Garden and the Evolution Garden, which traces plant evolution through the ages.

The book will include a map of the gardens marked with its heritage and modern features, as well as four suggested walking trails.

When asked, the gardens' director Nigel Taylor said it currently lacks a portable visitor guide.

"We would have gone ahead with the publication even without the Unesco World Heritage Site bid. That we are being considered for inscription, however, does make the guidebook very timely."

The book will boost awareness of the gardens' rich history - it played a pivotal role in the region's rubber trade, for instance - and could be used as an educational tool, he said.

"It includes numerous historical details which we had discovered in the past few years."

The gardens plans to have 5,000 copies of the book delivered to it by July 24, and may add 1,000 copies to the print run.

Nature Society president Shawn Lum said there have been books on specific aspects of the gardens, such as its plants. Last year, for instance, the National Parks Board published Tall Tales: Singapore Botanic Gardens Heritage Trees Trail Guide.

Dr Lum said the new guidebook could have a wider appeal as it is a more general one.

He added, however, that the book or some of its materials like the map should also be sold or made available in electronic form.

"There is so much interesting information about the gardens... it would be a shame if some people don't get to find out about any of this just because they don't like books," he said.

Last week, a Unesco-appointed panel, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), praised the gardens as an "exceptional example" of a British tropical colonial botanic garden in South-east Asia. Icomos has recommended that the gardens be listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, which would mark it as an area of outstanding universal cultural or natural value.

If the gardens is successful in its bid, it will be the first such site in Singapore and join two other Unesco-listed gardens: The 1759 Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, and the 1545 Orto botanico di Padova in Padua, Italy.

Botanic Gardens nature area to expand
Green space to cover 20ha and feature tall, rare trees and restored freshwater swamp
By Feng Zengkun, Environment Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 31 May 2015

The Singapore Botanic Gardens is about to get greener, even as it awaits the results of its Unesco World Heritage Site bid.

The National Parks Board (NParks) yesterday announced that a nature area within the Gardens will be more than tripled in size to 20ha, about the size of 30 football fields.

Nature areas are green spaces with ecological significance and will be preserved as long as development is not needed. There are 24 such areas across Singapore, including the nature reserves.

The Gardens' existing 6ha nature area is one of Singapore's few remaining patches of primary rainforest and has been preserved since 1859. The expansion includes a 10ha fragment of secondary forest next to the Gardens known as the Learning Forest, and surrounding forest areas.

NParks said the ecology in these areas complements the primary rainforest. More trees, including exceptionally tall and rare ones, will be planted in them, and an existing freshwater swamp will be restored and enhanced as part of the nature area expansion.

"The additional 14ha will enhance the forest habitat in the Gardens as it forms a contiguous swathe of forest through the heart of the Gardens," NParks said.

It added that this will create more opportunities for pollination and seed dispersal of native forest trees, help the rainforest regenerate, aid in the conservation of plants native to the region and create additional habitats for native wildlife such as the Red-legged Crake bird.

The new nature area could also take some pressure off the rainforest, by spreading visitors more evenly across the larger space.

The expansion is in line with the Gardens' site management plan for its Unesco bid.

The new trees to be planted include the Tualang and Kempas species, which have some of the tallest trees in South-east Asia.

These forest giants can grow up to 60m or even taller. Many rare species like the Damar Hitam Gajar and the Giam will also be planted to safeguard them from extinction here, and for research.

The freshwater swamp, which will be completed next year, willhave boardwalks and viewing decks to bring visitors closer to the flora and fauna.

Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee launched the new nature area yesterday at the Gardens.

He helped to plant 100 trees, together with MPs for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Ms Sim Ann, Minister of State for Education, and Communications and Information, and Mr Christopher De Souza, as well as about 130 residents and community gardeners.

Mr Lee said: "The rainforest has been largely untouched for hundreds of years... and holds some rare and unique species that can only be found here and nowhere else.

"All these upcoming developments will truly enhance our Botanic Gardens."

Duo's push for heritage site listing
By Melody Zaccheus, The Sunday Times, 31 May 2015

It was early January 2014 and the 700-page dossier pushing for the Singapore Botanic Gardens to be listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site was at last ready for delivery to Paris. But the courier who was to pick it up at 7pm failed to show up.

Ms Jean Wee, director of the Preservation of Sites and Monuments, charged with writing and compiling Singapore's submission, was taking no chances.

Even though the deadline was Jan 29, she wanted enough breathing space to prepare for unexpected bad weather, flight delays or the possibility of strikes in France. A late submission could cost the gardens the chance to make the prestigious World Heritage Site list in Singapore's 50th year.

She called the company's manager. "I told him, look, it's a matter of national importance. You have to collect it from me tonight because it has to be on the plane."

A courier came at 9pm. The documents reached Unesco's French headquarters the next day.

Earlier this month when a Unesco-appointed panel of experts gave its biggest thumbs up to the gardens' bid, Ms Wee, 50, could finally relax. "We had only one bite of the cherry... At any time I thought I might as well resign if I missed any of the deadlines... It was quite stressful," she said.

Now there is just one step left - for the Unesco World Heritage Committee to say yes at its meeting in Bonn, Germany, in July.

Ms Wee and Dr Nigel Taylor, director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens and former curator at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London, were roped in by the Government to lead the country's first bid for a World Heritage Site.

Ms Wee, a double English major and a former assistant director of programmes and education and curator at the Singapore Art Museum, remembers attending her first Unesco meeting as an observer in June 2012. "Singapore did not even have a name plate then. We were nobody and at the back."

But it gave her a chance to understand how other countries nominated their own treasures.

In 2013, she and Dr Taylor embarked on their 11/2-year mission.

The first thing to do was to have Singapore sign the 1972 Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. This would enable the country to become a state party with Unesco and to nominate the Botanic Gardens.

To make the cut as a potential World Heritage Site, a place must have outstanding universal value and meet at least one of 10 criteria.

The duo highlighted the gardens' colonial tropical garden roots - fulfilling one standard, which is to have a historical landscape. They then dug into its forgotten place in the history of the rubber trade - meeting the second criterion of having a role in the interchange of human values.

They dived into academic databases and scoured newspaper archives. Dr Taylor thumbed through reams of annual reports on the 156- year-old gardens. They interviewed members of the Rubber Trade Association of Singapore in Cecil Street.

They learnt that the Botanic Gardens was where rubber cultivation and extraction techniques were perfected, laying the groundwork for the region's eventual rubber trade boom "which changed the world", said Dr Taylor, 59.

Armed with these persuasive arguments, the next step was to ensure that the World Heritage Com- mittee's 21 members knew about the Botanic Gardens. An exhibition was set up at the committee's sessions in Phnom Penh in 2013 and Doha, Qatar, last year. Brochures about the gardens were placed on the seats of committee members.

Ms Wee said: "We were like car salesmen... You need to be heard and seen to showcase what you believe in."

As the submission deadline neared, late nights were the norm.

Even after the documents were delivered, the pair had to field follow-up questions from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), the Unesco-appointed panel of assessors and experts.

On one occasion, this was done over Skype at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at 10pm. Icomos asked if the original rubber trees were still around. They were not. Undaunted, the duo emphasised that experimental work and research done at the gardens helped propel the rubber trade in this region.

The result was Icomos' recommendation, the best of four possible outcomes for the gardens' bid.

Ms Wee said: "We wanted to under-promise and over-deliver. I'm thrilled by the results."

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