At the moment there are a total of 177 geoparks declared in 46 countries. 90 of them are in Europe. In Spain there are 15 territories with the UNESCO distinctive. The most recent ones -declared in 2020- are the Granada Geopark and the Maestrazgo Geopark. In Galicia we have the Courel Mountains Geopark, the first to be qualified in our community and the only one, for now, in the extreme north-west of the State.
A geopark is a territory that has a geological heritage of international relevance and with a high value for the knowledge of the history of the Earth. That is one of its characteristics, but there is more: geoparks are also management figures that seek to conserve, disseminate and value geological wealth as a basis for sustainable development of the areas where they are located.
The correct name of a geopark is UNESCO World Geopark, since it is this United Nations body that grants the distinctive, provided that it is previously requested and several requirements are met:
A geopark is not a legal figure that implies restrictions on land use, although the fact of opting for the UNESCO seal does require certain commitments for the conservation of geological resources.
In summary: the geopark must have an outstanding geological heritage that is managed by linking it with culture, nature, the socioeconomic fabric and sustainability, with the aim of uniting the territory, reinforcing the identity of its inhabitants with the wealth of the area in the one they live and contribute from the local level to the global knowledge of our planet.
The road to obtain the title of UNESCO Global Geopark is a long one. First of all, the territories should already be operating as geoparks even before becoming one. In other words, they must have a certain accumulated experience in applying the guidelines defined by UNESCO, especially in terms of knowledge of geological resources and awareness of their value.
They must also be supported by a management body and a strategic plan and, from there, steps can be taken to promote a candidacy. A process that will last at least two years and that starts with the sending to the Geoparks Committee of each state of a previous manifestation showing the interest in obtaining the distinctive, something that must be done. before April 1 of each year.
Subsequently, and before June 1 of the first year of processing, the public exhibition of the proposal for the creation of the geopark must begin and the complete documentation of the project must be submitted. From June 1 to July 31 the committee will analyze the proposal and issue its report -favorable or not- which will be sent to the Commission for Cooperation with UNESCO of the country where the candidate territory is located. During this time, corrections to the documentation or arguments may be required, which, in any case, must be included in the dossier before the end of September.
Between October 1 and November 30 it will be known if whether or not the delegation of cooperation with UNESCO supports the project. In each state, only a maximum of two applications per year are selected. If the verdict is favorable, the Commission for Cooperation with UNESCO itself will send the corresponding letter to the International Geoscience and Geoparks Program (IGCP), the body that has the final say in assigning the seal.
In the second year of processing, the IGCP will evaluate the candidacy in more detail and will send from May 1 a field inspection mission that looks at both the practical application of the strategy defined in the project and the degree of involvement of the population of the territory.
The UNESCO inspection is so demanding and exhaustive that it even conducts random interviews to note the extent to which people in the area are aware of the initiative. If the deadlines are met, the result of the evaluation will be discussed at the Global Geoparks Council in September. Once this penultimate filter has been passed, the proposal will have to be ratified by UNESCO’s Directorate General and elevated to final status by the Executive Board of this UN-dependent organization.
The main advantage of obtaining the UNESCO World Geopark distinction is to increase the knowledge of the place where we live, understanding it as the result of millions of years of constant changes. The geological substratum is the basis of everything: life has grown on it and humanity has also evolved, adapting to the peculiarities of each area. The landscape inherited from terrestrial changes is fundamental to understand our own social, cultural and economic reality.
All this knowledge associated with geology is put in value with the figure of geoparks, mainly through a seasonal tourism that discovers to the visitors places with unique characteristics, but also nature, heritage, gastronomy and tradition. The geopark is in itself a tourist brand protected by UNESCO that can and should generate economic and employment opportunities.
Near Galicia we have examples of how a geopark has an impact on its territory. The Basque Coast Geopark, which covers the municipalities of Mutriku, Deba and Zumaia, receives about 150,000 visits each year, of which approximately 40,000 are with guides from different companies that have in the geopark one of their main sources of income. Closer to Galicia, in the Arouca Geopark (Portugal), with a population of about 22,000 inhabitants and half the surface area of the Ortegal area, it is estimated an annual economic impact of about 15 million euros.
Other benefits of being a geopark are the reinforcement of the territorial identity, the possibility of accessing more European aid lines -Interreg programs, for example-, belonging to a worldwide network for the exchange of knowledge and experience, the creation of business opportunities and for the fixation of population, etc.
Being a UNESCO Geopark has the same international relevance as being declared a World Heritage Site. That is the reason why only territories that stand out for their unique geology and for the way in which they value it, also trying to meet the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN, can achieve this qualification.
However, the UNESCO Global Geopark seal is not a permanent title, but one that must be constantly worked to maintain. In fact, every four years it is necessary to undergo a kind of revalidation with international inspections that check on the ground that the objectives of development, conservation, education, science, territorial revitalization, communication, etc., are being met and that results are being obtained. If this is not the case, corrective measures must be adopted or new lines of work must be promoted in order to comply with the strategy. This is important, since it is easier to lose the geopark qualification than to achieve it.
Each geopark has its own discourse and differentiated from the others, as part of a big puzzle with pieces scattered around the world that together help us to understand how the Earth was configured over millions of years and how the landscape, societies and cultures have evolved in each area.
In this sense, geoparks are obliged to maintain a constant relationship among themselves through specialized forums and events in which experiences and best practices are exchanged, in order to strengthen the global network and, more than anything else, the knowledge of the chapters of Earth history that are written in each part of the world. This relationship is maintained at three levels: in the Spanish Geoparks Forum, in the European Geoparks Network and in the Global Geoparks Network.