Cultural Heritage and Sacred Sites: World Heritage from an Indigenous Perspective
 15 May 2002 - New York University

Presentation by Henrietta Marrie (transcript by Marie-Danielle Samuel from audiotape) Dr. Henrietta Marrie is a member of the Yidindyi nation of Australia. She is currently an officer in the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity of the United Nations in Montreal, Canada.

I am a little bit mixed in that when you talk about the World Heritage area, my people's country belongs to the rainforest people of Farnsworth, Queensland which now is about 900,000 hectares of rainforest which includes the Yidindyi peoples of North Queensland, within the vicinity of the rainforest.

My involvement in the World Heritage area has been for quite some years when I actually was the spokesperson for the peoples of the rainforest in the early 1990s before I began my position with the Secretariat for the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Now I will speak as a member of the Secretariat in terms of the issues of sacred sites and biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples. Sacred sites, particularly for the world's Indigenous peoples, generally have two interrelated and interdependent dimensions:

Firstly, they are places of particular spiritual and religious significance, as we heard tonight, and the continued performance of the rituals and ceremonies associated with those sites are fundamental to the spiritual well being of the individuals and communities associated with those sites. Secondly, the vast majority of these sites are associated with particular animal, plant species and embody all a symbol of the relationship or connection between those species and the particular communities to whom they are significant.

Both dimensions are recognized as being important in the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity as the relationship between biological diversity and cultural diversity is well established. A loss in biological diversity of a region traditionally occupied or used by Indigenous peoples and local communities will inevitably lead to a loss of traditional knowledge and practices associated with particular components of that biological diversity. If local indigenous communities are unable to maintain customary management, conservation and sustainable use practices regarding the ecosystem which they depend on for their livelihood, the biological diversity of the ecosystem will suffer.

For example, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) in its recent report on the course of the loss of genetic diversity of plant species for food and agriculture, cited the introduction of a new high yielding variety of traditional food species such as rice, wheat and potatoes and the displacement of traditional food staples with new introduced species as the leading cause for the diminution in the number of local varieties and species used by local farmers and indigenous communities and hence a loss in genetic diversity.

Sacred sites that are associated with biological diversity or components of it are a particular concern to the Convention and its processors. From the perspective of the Convention, many sacred sites serve particular functions that promote the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. For example, as wild life refuges, places where particular plant species essential for human health and well being, including spiritual well being, are maintained and the habitat of locally rare and possibly endangered species, habitats for migratory species of animals, birds, fish and insects and a unique habitat such as wetlands or mountains within the local environment.

The Sacred Sites share many of the functions of protected areas for the Institute of Conservation of Biological Diversity. Some sacred sites are listed as World Heritage Sites under the World Heritage Convention while others are protected under national, provincial or local laws governing the protection of cultural heritage. The Convention is not only concerned with respecting, protecting and maintaining traditional biodiversity related knowledge, including that which is associated with sacred sites, but is also concerned to maintain the cultural practices that are of relevance to biological diversity or particular components of it, including those practices associated with sacred sites.

This concern was addressed in Task 9 of the first phase of the Programme of Work adopted by the Conference of the Parties at its fifth meeting in Nairobi in May 2000 under decision 516. In this task the Ad Hoc open ended Working Group on the implementation of article 8j led provisions which includes 10c is to develop in cooperation with the indigenous and local communities, guidelines or recommendations for the conduct of cultural, environmental and social impact assessment regarding any development proposed to take place on sacred sites and on lands and waters occupied or used by Indigenous and local communities. The guidelines and recommendations should insure the participation of Indigenous and local communities in the assessment and review. The (COP) Conference of the Parties has requested that the Ad Hoc Working Group continues further work on guidelines for the conduct of cultural, environmental and social impact assessment regarding its development proposed to take place in or which are likely to impact on sacred sites and on land and waters traditionally occupied by Indigenous and local communities.

The Working Group produced a set of recommendations based on the draft guidelines for consideration at the 6th meeting of the COP held in The Hague last month. The COP substantially adopted in Part D of the decision 610 the recommendations for the conduct of cultural, environmental and social impact assessment regarding development. However, at this stage, these recommendations should only be considered as interim recommendations as the Working Group on article 8j is to carry out further work on the state of guidelines for the conduct of such cultural, environmental and social impact assessment at its 3rd meeting which will take place in early 2004 and for the consideration of COP7.

To summarize, the purpose of the recommendation is to help facilitate appropriate participation and involvement of Indigenous and local communities in the assessment process and taking into account the cultural, environmental and social concerns and interests of such communities and the inclusion of traditional knowledge innovations and practices, including technologies and customary methods as part of the impact assessment process.

The recommendations allow for the consideration of integration of cultural, environmental and social impact assessment as a single process and pay special attention to cultural and socio-economic considerations. With regard to the cultural impact assessment component, the recommendations state that, thru the cultural impact assessment process, issues, that are of a particular cultural concern, should be identified such as inter alia beliefs and religious customary practices, systems of natural resources including patents, patents of land use, places of cultural significance, sacred sites and ritual ceremonies and customary law systems.

There is a need to respect both the custodian and the holder of the traditional knowledge and the knowledge itself. And possible impact of all aspect of culture including sacred sites should be taken into consideration while developing cultural impact assessment.

In summary, the Convention recognizes the importance of those sacred sites that are relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity or components of it. In many instances, such recognition will occur within the context of the protected areas, irrespective of such recognition. The Convention under articles 8j and 10c is also concerned to insure that traditional biodiversity related knowledge is respected, preserved and maintained and that customary practice regarding the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity or its components continues.

Thank you.



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