The reverse side of the medal

Despite its prestige, the UNESCO world heritage title has some drawbacks

July 14, 2017

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee, the body that confers the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site to monuments, cities and landscapes and can also revoke it, recently convened. The honorary award usually means more tourists and increased revenues. However, there is a reverse side of the medal. This is the focus of Christoph Brumann of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle: He calls the award procedure into question and is examining the impact that the World Heritage title has on local residents.

At the weekend, there was much celebration in the Swabian Jura in Germany. Six caves in the Ach and Lone valleys, where humanity’s oldest known art objects were found, have been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Germany now has 42 sites that carry the prestigious title. As nice as that may be for the sites in Germany, from a global perspective, the World Heritage sites are unequally distributed. Germany features prominently on the World Heritage list, as do many other European countries, while the Southern Hemisphere is sorely underrepresented.

“Criticism has been levelled at the Eurocentricism of the World Heritage titles for some time,” says Christoph Brumann, Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. The ethnologist has traced how the idea of protecting cultural heritage and natural resources has evolved. The first step was the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which was concluded in 1954 against the backdrop of the devastation of World War II. In the 1960s, UNESCO began to get involved in the preservation of cultural heritage sites, first and foremost the ancient Egyptian temples of Abu Simbel and Philae, which were threatened by the construction of the Aswan Dam. The effort paid off: the temples were moved – an undertaking that was supported by donations from around the world. In 1972, UNESCO concluded the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Six years later, the first twelve sites were declared World Heritage Sites.

Everyday culture worth protecting

“Initially, Africa was well represented and India topped the list,” Brumann says. “Then the European nations realized how much they could profit from World Heritage status.” Moreover, the concept of cultural sites was very much in line with the European situation at the time, and the Europeans had the resources and know-how to apply successfully for World Heritage status. As a result, the number of World Heritage sites in Europe grew apace. But that also drew the attention of critics. Consequently, in the 1990s, the concept of World Heritage was more broadly defined: cultural landscapes were included and ancient traditions were given more weight. In 2003, another UNESCO convention was concluded, the aim of which was to protect humanity’s intangible cultural heritage, i.e. oral traditions, music, theatre, dance, rituals, festivals and traditional crafts.

Christoph Brumann believes that this was a significant step: “UNESCO embraced an ethnological understanding of culture, marking a shift from the masterpieces and artefacts of elites to everyday life and the evidence it has left behind.” However, this did little to address the uneven distribution of World Heritage sites. Europe and North America still account for almost half the sites, Africa for fewer than ten percent. According to Brumann, this is due to the immense effort required to secure a nomination. In addition, the status does not bring in more money in the short term. Quite the contrary, each country has to bear the costs for maintaining its World Heritage Sites.

Christoph Brumann is also concerned with the question of the title’s impact at the local level. In 2016, he published a book entitled World Heritage on the Ground: Ethnographic Perspectives, in which ethnologists describe the effects they have observed at World Heritage Sites, especially those outside Europe.

Tourists displace original inhabitants

One common result is a flood of visitors. “Though this can be a blessing for locals, it is often a curse,” Brumann says. In Lijiang in southwest China, for example, tourists have largely displaced the original inhabitants, the Naxi people, from the old town. Many of the shops are run by immigrant Han Chinese. The remaining Naxi families view the UNESCO title with mixed feelings. Although they can earn money by giving folklore performances, they often feel they have been reduced to living exhibition pieces.

Especially in larger cities, UNESCO's guidelines are often at odds with urban development; Vienna is a case in point. As a result of a planned 66-metre-high residential building, UNESCO has recently placed the world heritage site of the Old Town of Vienna on the red list of endangered sites – to the annoyance of many in the city, which faces a serious housing shortage. The withdrawal of World Heritage status from Dresden because of the construction of a bridge over the Elbe has made headlines in Germany, and in recent years construction projects have also led to conflict with UNESCO in London, Saint Petersburg, Riga, Barcelona and Istanbul.

In Asia and Africa, where the tradition of protecting sites of historical interest is not as well established as in Europe, people are sometimes baffled by Western experts’ concepts of maintaining historical monuments. The inhabitants of the Medina of Fez in Morocco are barely aware of their town’s World Heritage status, as the Belgian ethnologist Manon Istasse discovered. UNESCO is far away, and its concepts are remote, though this does no harm at all to the buildings. According to Istasse, the people of Fez have a very close and affectionate relationship with their houses. For them, the buildings are not part of an abstract category of “cultural heritage”, but spaces that appeal to the senses and arouse feelings associated with memories – spaces in which they live their lives. Whenever something needs renovation, they have always done it themselves. In doing so, they have developed an expertise that is fundamentally different from that of professional conservators.

Protection of monuments versus tradition

In Laos, the residents of Luang Prabang complain about the strict renovation requirements that apply to the houses of former French colonial rulers. The rules come mostly from the French, whose nostalgic view of the colonial period the locals find hard to understand. There are also tensions between the needs of local people and the conservation authorities at the famous Temples of Angkor in Cambodia. The site has long served the population as a place to gather firewood and forest fruit as well as an area for farming fish and grazing cattle. In addition, local people want to continue to use the site for religious purposes and to erect new temples at the holy site. Both are opposed by the regulations imposed by the national authorities, which are very restrictive, partly as a result of fawning obedience to UNESCO. Thus, World Heritage status, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, can result in people feeling patronized by the restrictions put in place.

A particular problem arises from UNESCO’s decidedly secular approach to the protection of religious sites. This almost invariably leads to conflicts with users of the sites, for whom religion is more important than the protection of monuments. For example, the rock paintings of Kondoa-Irangi in Tanzania were given World Heritage status without any preliminary clarification as to how the ritual use of the site could be reconciled with its new standing. One of the local rites is to sprinkle and spit pombe, a kind of beer, onto the rock paintings to appease ancestral spirits. These traditional practices have now been banned by the Tanzanian Conservation Authority to protect the World Heritage site in the way it sees fit. Another example can be found in Djenné in the Nigeria. There was unrest when it was suspected that infidels were working on the restoration of the Great Mosque in the World Heritage city.

Among religious extremists, World Heritage status can trigger naked aggression: “The Islamic State has deliberately destroyed sites such as Palmyra and Hatra,” Christoph Brumann says. “Only its view of Islam should endure, for which reason all other religious and cultural roots must be destroyed. At the same time, the acts of destruction were about attracting world attention.” Destructive acts like these show that the World Heritage title is a knightly accolade without armour, and the global community has little control over those who set out to destroy humanity’s heritage.

“World Heritage status is associated with the somewhat naive view that the honour will unite people. But it is not that simple,” Brumann says. Only if the conflicts that arise locally are taken seriously can the preservation of humanity’s heritage truly become everyone’s concern.


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