The Blurry Future of World Heritage

The notion of heritage has been constantly evolving throughout the course of history. Heritage includes our inherited traditions, objects, monuments and culture; and our contemporary interactions with them. Heritage is both tangible and intangible. It includes ideas and memories related to cultural songs, traditions, languages, dances, recipes and other elements; it is as important as historical monuments and archaeological sites. There are three types of sites. Cultural heritage includes monuments, sculptures, paintings, important archaeological sites, historic buildings and town sites. Natural heritage sites are natural areas that provide an example of the Earth’s record of life, in terms of its geologic process, ecological process and biological evolutionary process. Mixed heritage sites contain both elements of natural and cultural significance. France has been one of the first countries to pay strong attention to its heritage and its value. This awakening came at the time of the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, with the newly emerging view of preserving and restoring historical monuments.

In 1887, the first piece of legislation for heritage was legislated in France: “Loi sur la conservation des monuments et objets d’art”: Law on the conservation of monuments and pieces of art. 

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there was an inflation in the importance of heritage across Europe and the rest of the world. Why would this be the case? Is there a risk of losing the cultural and traditional value of heritage? What are the contemporary issues threatening our world heritage? 

The Seine River in Paris, France

During the twentieth century, the law on the protection of heritage was combined with the idea of the evolution of heritage. Until 1960, the protection of heritage was considered to be a niche area only practised by art historians. At that time, heritage was only referred to as monuments and pieces of art. Gradually, rural, industrial, maritime, technique and archaeological heritage were added to the list. This created a new sub-category called “patrimoine de proximité” (promotion of the patrimony around the sites), including  “les rives de la Seine” (the banks of the Seine river), which is considered to be the birthplace of Paris. The constitutional law of 23 July 2008 recognised regional languages and arts and crafts to be part of the French heritage, such as la gastronomie française. With the constant enlargement of the scope of heritage, there is a risk of dilution of the conservation and value of heritage. This inflation is related to the multiplication of labels. Labels were initially developed for the promotion of sites. However, in practice, labels are rather being used for economic and touristic purposes or cultural purposes. World Heritage Labels certainly award the site with some prestige and attract more tourists and investors. It leads to a confusion of the value and mission of labels, which is mainly focussed on the outstanding value to humanity. An example would be the situation in Venice. Venice has been experiencing a massive wave of tourists, which is, forcing Venetians to leave their city and restructuring palaces into hotels to accommodate tourists. Venice has been classed as U.N. World Heritage of Humanity site, with the particular status of “outstanding universal value”. This phenomenon is undoubtedly deteriorating the value of Venice’s heritage and its people’s way of living.  

Heritage is now facing some modern threats such as terrorism. In 2012, the war between nomadic Tuaregs, teamed up with jihadist group Ansar Dine against the Malian State and other international support, began in Mali. Jihadists have destroyed a mausoleum that has been submitted as a U.N. World Heritage site, leaving behind a warning to those who will not follow their strict version of Islam. The mausoleum was part of a historic village that is a national heritage site. It was nominated in 2009 to be recognised by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), the U.N. cultural agency. This caused massive and invaluable destruction to the Malian heritage. Another example would be the destruction of the archaeological site of Hatra in northern Iraq. Hatra became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.

The destruction of Hatra marks a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing underway in Iraq.”

Irina Bokova, former UNESCO Director-General

Nevertheless, terrorism is not the only threat menacing our world heritage. Environmental issues are creating considerable damages. An example would be the phenomenon of acqua alta or “high water”, in Venice, that is causing significant flooding in the Venetian lagoon. Venice and its lagoon were submitted to the list of World Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 1987. Acqua alta occurs when the tide is 90 cm above normal high tide. A larger problem is the rising sea level, which will become an even bigger threat as global warming melts the arctic ice caps. The frequency of acqua alta has increased, from less than 10 times a year to more than 60 times a year, in the last century. The idea of a defence plan against high water was imposed by a special law for Venice, promulgated in 1973 by the Italian government. This mobilization resulted into the project of Mose, whose implementation began in 2003, but remains unfinished, disrupted by corruption scandals and other criticisms. 

Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy

Climate change has become the biggest threat to U. N. listed natural world heritage sites like glaciers and wetlands. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) revealed in a new report that the changing climate has now imperilled about ninety-four UNESCO listed natural sites around the globe.  Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been listed as natural world heritage in 1981 by UNESCO, as it is the most extensive and spectacular coral reef ecosystem on the planet. The world’s largest and relatively well-protected reef system is increasingly compromised and in decline. Record-breaking temperatures in 2016 and 2017 have engendered fewer small, baby corals and breeding adult ones, said Terry Hughes, professor at ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.  According to Hughes,

the resilience of the reef, its ability to bounce back from recurrent mass bleaching events, has been compromised.”  

The cultural and traditional value of heritage is gradually turning into a business weapon, which could lead to the devaluation of heritage in the coming years, which is not being helped by the various aforementioned threats. In response to these various threats, UNESCO has inscribed a site on the List of World Heritage in Danger, which allows the World Heritage Committee to allocate immediate assistance from the World Heritage Fund to endangered property. However, as those threats continue to be diverse and unpredictable, the conservation and protection of our world heritage sites are left uncertain. 

Leave a Reply