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A tool for geological heritage conservation, education, economic activity and sustainable development.

Sophie Preteseille

The Geopark Concept
The origins of the Geopark concept date back to the late 1990s. At that time UNESCO (the United Nations for Education, Science and Culture Organisation) Division of Earth Sciences was looking at ways of using geological heritage to promote sustainable development among communities otherwise bypassed by economic growth, but also how to provide an international framework for the conservation of geological heritage, or geo-conservation, to enhance the value of the heritage of the Earth.

Meanwhile, four European territories (Reserve Géologique de Haute Provence-France, Vulkaneifel-Germany, Petrified Forest Lesvos-Greece, Maestrazgo Cultural Park-Spain) were interested in the same sustainable tourism for local communities issues. The concept of geological tourism or geotourism was born. Together, they founded the European Geoparks Network (EGN) in 2000 and sought to spread the concept across Europe.

Beigua Global Geopark, Italy Beigua Global Geopark, Italy

In 2001, an agreement was signed between UNESCO’s Division of Earth Sciences and the EGN to join efforts as the network began to rapidly expand. The EGN would then operate under the auspices of UNESCO.

As territories outside Europe - especially in China first - interested in the Geopark concept, wanted to join but no suitable structure was in place at the time, the Global Network of National Geoparks (also known as the Global Geoparks Network - GGN) was created, assisted by UNESCO in 2004. The GGN operates with regional/continental networks. For a European territory to become a member of the Global Network, it must first become a member of the EGN.

 European Geoparks logo                Global Geoparks logo

At present (December 2009), there are 35 Geoparks in 13 countries across Europe and 29 other in the rest of the world (China, Malaysia, Iran, Brazil, Australia, Japan), all of which are members of the GGN.

What is a Geopark?
Bedrock is the foundation of all landscapes on which biodiversity has developed over millions of years and humans have settled in more recent times. With no geological diversity (geodiversity), the rest wouldn’t exist as it is. This is the reason why geological heritage has to be protected and people have to be educated about it so they can benefit from it even more.

The official UNESCO definition of a Geopark is: "A Geopark is a nationally protected area containing a number of geological heritage sites of particular importance, rarity or aesthetic appeal. These Earth heritage sites are part of an integrated concept of protection, education and sustainable development. A Geopark achieves its goals through a three-pronged approach:

A Geopark seeks to conserve significant geological features, and explore and demonstrate methods for excellence in conservation. The management authority of each Geopark ensures adequate protection measures in consultation with collaborating universities, geological surveys or relevant statutory bodies in accordance with local traditions and legislative obligations.

A Geopark organizes activities and provides logistic support to communicate geoscientific knowledge and environmental concepts to the public. This is accomplished through protected and interpreted geosites, museums, information centres, trails, guided tours, school class excursions, popular literature, maps, educational materials and displays, seminars and so on. A Geopark also fosters scientific research and cooperation with universities and research institutes, stimulating the dialogue between the geosciences and local populations.

A Geopark stimulates economic activity and sustainable development through geotourism. By attracting increasing numbers of visitors, a Geopark stimulates local socio-economic development through the promotion of a quality label linked with the local natural heritage. It encourages the creation of local enterprises and cottage industries involved in geotourism and geoproducts."

What a Geopark is not:
A Geopark is not an area of outstanding geological heritage alone; other facets of heritage (natural, cultural, historical, archaeological) must also be integrated as they’re all interlinked.

A Geopark is not a single site either (Geoparks are territories large enough so development strategy can be emplaced). A Geopark is not an area fenced off just for scientists and it is not a theme park either.

A Geopark is not a formal, legislative designation. And, as such, it carries no legal obligations or restrictions. However because of the nature of conservation activities taking place in Geoparks, these territories and/or their collaborating partners are likely to be involved with policy making.

Why is the concept becoming popular?
Geoparks aim to protect geological heritage and geodiversity within national frameworks. Geoparks aim at promoting understanding of Earth history and legacy through education. Geoparks aim at supporting economic growth and sustainable development through geotourism. Geoparks aim at reconnecting people with Planet Earth.

As Geoparks operate within a network, whether at a European level or a Global level, they are provided with a platform for exchange of knowledge and best practice. All territories have different geological heritage and communities but they are all driven by the same will to make it work: conserve geological heritage for the future generations, educate and develop in a sustainable and responsible way for the benefit of all.

Access to the Network is achieved through a very selective process where applicants are asked to demonstrate that they are operating as a "de-facto" Geopark, i.e. a Geopark in everything but name, which also insures the quality of the applicants.

Are there any Geoparks in Ireland?
Marble Arch logo
Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, Co. Fermanagh and Co. Cavan 
Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, Co. Fermanagh and Co. Cavan   

In 2000, Marble Arch Caves, in Co. Fermanagh and the Copper Coast, in Co. Waterford applied to join the EGN and were successfully accepted. To date they remain the only official members of the EGN on the island of Ireland.

Copper Coast logo
Copper Coast Global Geopark, Ballydwane, Co. Waterford 
Copper Coast Global Geopark, Ballydwane, Co. Waterford

Through successful applications to EU funding programmes, Marble Arch Caves and Copper Coast raised a considerable amount of funds to further develop themselves as territories, along with infrastructure, signage, staff, educational services and products, promotional resources, tourism products and raise awareness of the Geopark concept. Both territories became Global Geoparks in 2004. Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark has since successfully extended to Co. Cavan in 2008, thus becoming the first international Geopark in the world.

Other community groups in Ireland are becoming interested in the concept, believing in the outstanding value of their geological heritage and its potential for tourism, education and sustainable development. Among them Kerry (Sneem-Caherciveen), Mourne Mountains/Cooley/Ring of Gullion and The Burren/Cliffs of Moher, to name a few.

The Geoparks Ireland Forum
To answer the demand for information and insure the quality of the geological heritage put in the application to the EGN, the Geological Survey of Ireland and the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, both having experience and having been involved with the Geoparks listed above established the Geoparks Ireland Committee in 2007 as an all-island committee which would apply the highest standards of geoscience in assisting stakeholders to build the Geoparks brand throughout the island of Ireland. For terms of reference, see link at the end of the article.

One of the Committee actions was to set up a Geoparks Ireland Forum to inform and guide stakeholders and provide networking opportunities. Membership is open to any body or group, including both community based and local authority organisations, seeking to develop a Geopark or already operating a Geopark. Stakeholders include existing and prospective Geoparks, local authorities, the Heritage Council, the Environment and Heritage Service, Tourism Ireland Ltd., universities and regional and local tourism bodies.

Meetings have been taking place once a year since the set up. They usually consist of presentations updating the forum about development in each territory along with a visit of the area when possible and suitable.

The Burren meeting, 20th - 21st October 2009
The Geoparks Ireland Forum held its most recent meeting in the Burren aspiring Geopark. Delegates from the existing Geoparks and aspiring ones met in Ennistymon for presentations from each territory and exchange on the 20th October. The discussion revolved mainly around aspects of the application process to the Network, management issues, education, site access, site degradation, and local support. For presentations and notes of the discussion, see link at the end of the article.

The following day was dedicated to discovering part of the geological heritage of the Burren led by Dr Ronán Hennessy, geologist with the Burren Connect Project, and visiting the Atlantic Edge at the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre where Geraldine Enright, Marketing Manager was on hand to answer numerous questions about the largest tourist attraction in Ireland.

The Burren, Co. Clare The Burren, Co. Clare

The next meeting in 2010 is likely to be hosted by the new kid on the block: the Joyce Country aspiring Geopark in Co. Mayo-Galway. Date will be announced next spring.

If you wish to be added to the circulation list to be kept posted of any development in the Forum, contact Sophie Préteseille at

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