Virunga: African Heritage and its Sustainable Development

The subject of African heritage and its sustainable development – or African heritage and sustainable development – has become one of the most discussed issues of late, both within and outside the continent. The discussion has not been confined only to heritage practitioners but has traversed the traditional boundaries, bringing in the practitioners, academicians, communities, NGOs, business concerns and even States Parties wanting to open up their heritage resources as sources of wealth creation and poverty alleviation, beyond the usual tourism activities.

The question of whether heritage can be used sustainably for development seems to be no longer contested; the question is how, rather than why.  


The question of Heritage Conservation and its Sustainable Development: origins and the journey

In his speech to the Parks Conference in 2002 in Johannesburg, President Nelson Mandela remarked ‘What do we conserve for if not humanity.’ This was a statement that can be interpreted in two ways.

First, conservation is the responsibility of all; but second, conservation for its own sake without human benefit may not meet its goals. On a continent with a colonial past of appropriation of resources from communities, and their exclusion from the management of these, conservation especially of parks and other heritage resources is often seen as continuation of this colonial agenda for the benefit of a few ‘outsiders’. It is also seen as benefitting the elite already endowed with resources and the time to explore, experience and discover rather than the hardworking community members.

At local level, in the minds of many, properties listed as World Heritage have often been considered belonging to UNESCO, rather than to States Parties or communities living within or around them. The language of the Convention is foreign to the common person; the regulations imposed to ensure the protection of the properties’ Outstanding Universal Values (OUV), and their impact on communities’ lives, are often unpopular. This manifests itself even more and creates a conflictual situation when these regulations affect the needs of the States Parties, for instance World Heritage sites being declared no-go zones for extractive industries, or developments in listed historic urban landscapes being strictly regulated.

In Africa, the discussions on heritage conservation and sustainable development in and around World Heritage properties have been influenced by the historical experiences of alienation and appropriation of resources, and by current discoveries of other economic potentials within or adjacent to the World Heritage sites whose exploitation does not necessarily conform to the Convention and its principles. This has been reinforced by the trend in heritage thinking and practice that reflects a move away from sole concern with preserving heritage at any cost, to a more open-minded approach to heritage as being instrumental in leveraging development.

How can we achieve this in a space of conflicts, wars, poverty and want?

Africa is confronted with difficult problems that go beyond development: issues of rights of people, of nation states and of deprived communities marginalized over generations, trying to negotiate spaces in a competitive world where they cannot trust even their ‘representatives’.

There is need for a proud Africa that protects and promotes its heritage while empowering its people with a better life. An Africa with silent guns that turns future aspirations into present reality. Where children do not know the sounds of mortar and bomb blasts, or rape, disease and hunger, but peace, plenty and play. Where they are allowed to be children. Where they appreciate nature: forest, mountain, caves as gifts of nature bequeathed to them to enjoy and appreciate, rather than to use as hiding places from torture and deprivation of their rights.

Where diversity of cultures becomes a source of pride, inspiration and sharing rather than a source of conflicts. Where heritage contributes to all these. Africa needs to prioritize its development. It already has challenges linked to extractive industries, dam construction, mega ports and transport infrastructure developments, considered hurtful to heritage. On the other side, it has the danger of poverty and lack of development in the face of vast resources. To tackle these dilemmas, Africa has to ‘come home’ first with a continental vision. It needs a common approach in the spirit of Ubuntu, the African humanist concept that states ‘you are because we are’ and incorporates the Nigerian saying ‘if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go with others’.

Heritage professionals, site managers and heritage activists have to start thinking beyond their spaces of responsibility to ask what best practice is. They must recognize that exclusion of community voices from World Heritage sites, the tendency to treat World Heritage as a prestige phenomenon rather than a functional asset that can improve the lives of communities, andthe over-centralization of decisions on World Heritage, left in the hands of the government apparatus, can be a threat to balanced and sustainable use and protection.

There is a need for a common language that communities understand and respect for their traditional management systems (TMS). Heritage jargon, terms such as Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), Authenticity and Integrity remain ambiguous, not conceptualized and defined from the African perspective and reality. Yet these are the words used by those engaging communities, rather than communicating in a ‘language’ that reflects their feelings, aspirations and experiences.

Source: Excerpts  from “African heritage and its sustainable development ” by George Okello Abungu Okello Abungu – Heritage Consultants (Kenya) and Visiting Scholar (2016), Getty Research Institute (USA) in World Heritage n.82

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