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Dr Zouros and Dr Belmonte arrived in the Waitaki district on Saturday to assess the Waitaki Whitestone Geopark’s application to become New Zealand’s first Unesco Global Geopark.
Their three-day evaluation started at Moeraki marae on Saturday morning. Over the weekend, the assessors visited the Moeraki Boulders, Palmerston, Devil’s Bridge Wetland, Takiroa Rock Art and the Kurow Museum, and took a helicopter flight over Lake Ohau, the Ahuriri Valley and the Clay Cliffs.
Yesterday, they were taken to Anatini and Elephant Rocks, before spending the afternoon in Duntroon, visiting Vanished World, watching geo-educator Sasha Morriss take a programme with Duntroon School pupils and being hosted by the community for a lunch. They finished their visit in Oamaru with a visit to the Waitaki Museum & Archive.
Dr Zouros lives in Greece, and was one of the founders of the European Geoparks Network in 2000. He is the co-ordinator of the Lesvos Island Unesco Global Geopark at present, and has travelled the world over the past 20 years as a Global Geopark assessor for Unesco. Dr Belmonte, of Spain, has been involved with Geoparks since 2006, and has seven years’ experience as a Unesco Global Geoparks assessor. He is a co-ordinator of the Sobrarbe-Pirineos Global Geopark at present.
Dr Zouros and Dr Belmonte said they were looking at much more than just the geological heritage of the area when they completed their assessments. Community education and conservation efforts were also very important.
"A Geopark should have geological heritage — this means sites which can be used in order to tell the history of our planet," Dr Zouros said.
"But the question is not if the heritage exists ... the question is, how much we understand the value of this heritage, and how we treat this heritage, how we use this heritage in order to improve the living conditions of the communities living in the place, and ... [how] the community will take care of this heritage and will safeguard the heritage for the generations to come."
It is the first time both assessors have visited New Zealand. Their report on the Waitaki Whitestone Geopark will be submitted to the Unesco Global Geoparks Council to consider in September.
Waitaki Whitestone Geopark manager Lisa Heinz said she was "so pleased" the evaluation was finally able to go ahead. The trust submitted its application for Unesco Global Geopark status in November 2019, but New Zealand’s border closures due to Covid-19 had prevented international assessors from visiting New Zealand for the assessment until now.
"We’ve been waiting for it for a long time," she said.
There are 177 Global Geoparks in Unesco’s network, spread across 46 countries.