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Geopark a catalyst to uniting communities

Source: Source: Published:Feb 06,2009

      Pictured at the launch of the first International Geopark
      are from left, Kevin Baird, chairman N.ITB; Arlene Foster,
      M.L.A; Thomas O’Reilly, chairman of Fermanagh District
      Council; Rodney Watson, R.T.O and
      Wendy McChesney, R.T.O.

Catriona Loughran attends the launch of the world’s first transnational Geopark in the Slieve Russell and discovers a cross border development of deeper significance to the local area than the very caves that inspired the project in the first place

The counties of Fermanagh and Cavan were catapulted into the international tourism frame following the launch of the expansion of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, the world’s first transnational geopark.

Over 150 people attended the special event last Friday at the Slieve Russell Hotel & Country Club, Ballyconnell, including Economy minister Arlene Foster, Irish Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Brendan Smith T.D and Professor Nickolas Zouros, Co-ordinator of the European Geoparks Network and Special Advisor to UNESCO on Geoparks.

Geoparks are areas of internationally significant geological heritage, which are used by the local community to promote economic development through high quality, sustainable tourism and scientific research.

They are supported by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and are separate from the World Heritage List.

Over the last two years Fermanagh and Cavan councils have been working closely to expand the Marble Arch Caves Geopark into Co. Cavan, which covers an area of roughly 18,000 hectares and joins an elite network of 37 Geoparks across the world-five of which are in Britain and Ireland.

The expansion of the geopark means the area can be marketed and promoted to a global audience with the potential to invigorate the local economy and to create new jobs.

Both councils were commended for using the geopark as a catalyst in ‘bringing the two communities together’ following decades of political unrest and conflict.

Speaking at the launch Professor Zouros said Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark is a signifcant example in showing the world how peace and reconciliation can be achieved by working together for the benefit of the local community.

“Through this geopark, Fermanagh and Cavan councils have brought new life to an area once marred by conflict and today’s launch is a positive result, which sends out a strong message of inspiration to the world. Border areas usually bring some kind of conflict between countries and hopefully this collaboration can inspire places like Germany to expand and work with Poland and the Czech Republic to expand and work with Hungary. Geoparks promote the natural beauty, heritage, geology and cultural elements of an area and I expect both councils to carry on their work of promoting and marketing this high quality and excellent geopark,” he said.

Attendees at the launch were given an interesting and informative presentation by Richard Watson, the Manager of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark. It included the background to the initial involvement with the European Geopark network in 2000 which has lead to this cross border extension.

He said the geodiversity of the area has created a unique region that features characteristic rugged limestone landscapes, extensive forests and swathes of globally rare blanket bog, which has influenced the lives and farming practices of its inhabitants throughout history and described this as a platform for ‘sustainable tourism.’

But he said, in light of the global economic downturn, the Geopark will face ‘challenges’ regarding international tourism.

Mr Watson also highlighted the work of the geopark as an educational resource for school children and universities in learning about the unique landscape of the area.

Minister Foster congratulated both councils and talked about how Geoparks ‘safeguard the landscape’ for future generations, “Geoparks, which draw on geological history, are an excellent way to gain international recognition, both scientifically and from a tourism perspective. Marble Arch Caves Geopark already attracts international visitors and makes and important contribution not only to the local economy but to the whole economy of Northern Ireland. This announcement of the first transnational Geopark provides an opportunity to further develop it as an environmentally and economically sustainable tourism resource,” she said.

Minister Smith commended both councils on a ‘very interesting and innovative project’ and complemented the executive and staff of both councils in bringing the expansion into Co. Cavan. Thomas O’Reilly, Chairman of Fermanagh District Council reiterated his council’s continuing commitment to the Geopark and the extent to which Fermanagh District Council values its partnership with Cavan County Council, “a strong project such as the Geopark, sends out a powerful message around the world, and provides an example of a model for sustainable development,” he said.