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Conservation in middle age

Conservation in middle age
  • © Tealdi Guillermo
  • Cathedral, bell tower (Quito, Ecuador)

For many people 40 is the age of stock-taking. This also holds for the 1972 World Heritage Convention whose 40th anniversary will be celebrated in 2012. Since its creation under the terms of the Convention, UNESCO’s World Heritage List has spread to cover 145 States Parties, home to 878 World Heritage sites, 679 cultural properties: 174 natural and 25 mixed. With new sites inscribed every year, the List will soon number 1,000 sites.

Is this a good thing? How can UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee, the independent body in charge of maintaining the World Heritage List, handle the monitoring and help upkeep so many properties? How can the pertinence of the List be preserved and even increased?

These are some of the questions that the international conservation community will be examining at the 33rd session of the World Heritage Committee, which will be held in Seville (Spain) from 22 to 30 June. The process is an ongoing one, and it included a two-day workshop in Paris this winter attended by members of the World Heritage Committee, representatives of States Parties to the Convention as well as representatives of the Committee’s advisory bodies, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS, specializing in cultural conservation), ICCROM (the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“There is nothing wrong with having a thousand properties inscribed on the World Heritage List,” argues Francesco Bandarin the Director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre commenting on the annual addition of sites to the List. But he notes that the monitoring of these sites, which are subject to regular visits by experts, poses a problem to UNESCO whose limited staff and financial resources are increasingly stretched.

The Convention - whose primary goal has always been to foster international solidarity to preserve cultural and natural heritage and raise awareness about the value of heritage – stipulates that some sites should belong to humanity as a whole because of their “outstanding universal value.” Nevertheless, the Convention, ratified by 186 States, recognizes national sovereignty over these sites and States remain responsible for the management of the sites that they proposed for inscription on the List.

Since the first inscriptions on the World Heritage List in 1978 of the Ecuadoran, sites of the Galapagos Islands and the City of Quito, (numbered respectively 1 and 2), experts became aware of the need to have other forms of heritage represented, not just palaces, cathedrals, natural parks and historic buildings. Indeed, the List now includes outstanding examples of modern architecture, such as the Berlin Modernism Housing Estates (inscribed in 2008), as well as some industrial sites like the Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works in Chile (inscribed in 2005).

“This illustrates the fact that World Heritage is a living concept. The List reflects evolving thinking on culture and nature,” explains Mr Bandarin who believes that the List should be inclusive rather than a restrictive and competitive ranking like the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Since the early days of the World Heritage Convention, other developments include an increasing number of transnational and transboundary properties which now total 21 sites, both cultural and natural. One remarkable example of the cooperation potential of transboundary properties can be seen in the Struve Geodetic Arc, inscribed in 2005, bringing together Belarus, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Republic of Moldova, the Russian Federation, Sweden and Ukraine. Likewise, great emphasis when nominating a site for inscription is now placed on detailed conservation management plans for sites including a buffer zone around the property itself.

At stake, UNESCO and Committee members agree, is the need to ensure the List’s credibility, the key element in the five “c”s advocated by the Committee alongside conservation, capacity building, communication and community. If World Heritage is to retain its positive image, it must ensure that the properties inscribed are really of “outstanding universal value.” Adequate conservation measures must also be implemented, requiring the training of qualified conservation professionals, the public should be made aware of World Heritage and its protection, and local communities must be included in, and benefit from heritage management plans.

“But we really don’t have many tools in our toolbox to accomplish all of this,” explains Mr Bandarin. He points out that the Convention provides only for the inscription of sites on the World Heritage List, and on the List of World Heritage in Danger, when they require international assistance. There is one other radical measure that has only been used once so far: delisting (Arabian Oryx Sanctuary, Oman, inscribed in 1994 and delisted in 2007).

Meanwhile, measures that should contribute to the preservation of World Heritage worldwide are being developed. They include the creation of dedicated regional centres of training and research to train professional conservation experts and create an international network to share know-how and best practices.

This is just one of the projects underway. While delegates to the World Heritage Committee meeting in Seville discuss ways to strengthen international heritage protection, they will also be planning the Convention’s 40th birthday bash in 2012, a splendid opportunity to raise awareness of World Heritage.

  • Author(s):UNESCOPRESS
  • 13-06-2009
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