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

Presentation by Dr. Sarah Titchen (transcript by Marie-Danielle Samuel from audiotape) Dr Sarah M. Titchen is the Chief of the Policy and Statutory Implementation Unit of the World Heritage Centre at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France. In recent years Dr Titchen's work at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre has included a focus on the implementation of the World Heritage Convention in the Pacific and assisting with the development of the proposal for the creation of a World Heritage Indigenous Peoples Council of Experts (WHIPCOE).

Indigenous peoples and cultural and natural World Heritage sites:  As Mr. Kyazze mentioned, 2002 is really an historic year for the UN and its agencies in the fields of both Cultural Heritage and Indigenous issues. 2002 has been designated the UN Year for Cultural Heritage. It is also the 30th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention which is the subject of my particular work and as you know the first Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is taking place down the road at UN Headquarters.

UNESCO plays a particularly significant role in the protection of cultural heritage and UNESCO has a number of conventions and recommendations on the protection of this heritage. UNESCO also has a rather significant program on Man and the Biosphere which promotes the sustainable use of a network of biospheres around the world in cooperation with local communities.

Most recently in 2001, there was also the adoption a new convention for the protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, the new Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity and work is now beginning to determine what is the best international system of legal protection for the Intangible Cultural Heritage, including traditional dances and songs. These new initiatives include issues of heritage protection that are very likely to be of particular interest to Indigenous peoples. I cannot speak about of all these initiatives as my particular specialty is on the implementation of the World Heritage Convention which was adopted 30 years ago.

The World Heritage Convention is a stage setting instrument. It recommends international cooperation in the field of heritage conservation and has 167 states parties that have signed up to this convention. It calls on signatory states to identify, protect, conserve, present and transmit to future generations, in the words of that convention itself, the outstanding cultural and natural heritage situated on the territory of those states. This is a significant point that it is a very unique instrument as it protects both cultural and natural heritages and perhaps this is also why it has such tremendous relevance to Indigenous communities around the world.

The convention does not actually include specific references to Indigenous peoples or to the importance of heritage sites to Indigenous peoples. However, the convention does include reference to links between people and the environment and it refers specifically to the combined works of nature and of man in the language of 1972 as part of the combined heritage of humankind deserving of protection. That's what the Convention says.

In 1992, 20 years after the convention had been working, referring to this particular wording in the convention on the combined works of nature and man, the World Heritage Committee decided to include outstanding cultural landscapes on the World Heritage list, places demonstrating an outstanding interaction between people and the natural environment. This recognition of the interconnectedness between people and the environment and of spiritual association people may have with land and water has provided some quite unique new opportunities for international recognition of sacred sites and other places of importance to Indigenous peoples as World Heritage sites. In 1993, Tongariro National Park in New Zealand was recognized as the first ever World Heritage cultural landscape. As some of you might know, the outstanding cultural and spiritual connections between the Maori people and this sacred volcanic landscape are outstanding and this was recognized in the creation of this first ever World Heritage cultural landscape at the international level. The World Heritage list includes as of now 721 natural and cultural sites in 124 countries. We put some 2001 maps outside showing the sites that were inscribed on the list up to the end of 2000. You will be able to see the distribution of those sites around the world.

Many of these properties as we call them have importance to Indigenous Peoples and there are examples of World Heritage sites whose inscription on the World Heritage list was wholly or partly justified on the basis of the values of those places to Indigenous peoples. These sites include the Rice terraces of the Philippines cordillera, Uluru-Kata Tjata in Australia, Machu Picchu in Peru and many sites in Africa as well.

In nominating these sites to the World Heritage list, the states parties are requested to insure the participation of local peoples in the nomination process and this is considered to be really essential to give them a shared responsibility with the state party in the future maintenance of the site.

Furthermore, we know examples in practice. Best practice management of World Heritage areas where there is cooperation with Indigenous peoples. These include the involvement of local communities in the nomination at the beginning, the management and monitoring of the World Heritage property over time and there are examples of joint management and management in partnership that rely on traditional knowledge and practice around the world.

There is tremendous potential for World heritage conservation to really contribute to the cultural survival of Indigenous peoples. It can also contribute to the meaningful protection of lands and waters of importance to Indigenous peoples with their participation in traditional knowledge as the basis for an environmentally sustainable future.

As we know, there are also examples of ways Indigenous Peoples are not consulted when the site is nominated for World Heritage listing or for the preparation of management plans for the site.

UNESCO is also aware of cases where Indigenous Peoples have not been consulted when public works are proposed on their traditional lands, even when that area is designated as a World Heritage area.

We also know that there are situations when Indigenous peoples have been actually physically removed from protected areas as a way of justifying inscription of an area on the World Heritage list as a place of natural importance devoid of what is perceived as the negative impact of local inhabitants

There are also examples of Indigenous peoples being restricted from practicing traditional hunting, gathering, land use and trading practices as they are said to disturb the ecological balance particularly of natural world heritage areas.

In recent years, a number of initiatives have begun to try and ensure that Indigenous voices are heard at an international level in effort to promote the world's natural and cultural heritage

Here, I want to remind you that the World Heritage Convention is an instrument of international cooperation between states parties (national governments usually) and that the World Heritage Committee is an intergovernmental committee. It is for national governments to develop national policies for World Heritage conservation and to decide to include Indigenous peoples for example in their delegations at official meetings of the World Heritage Committee.

Recent initiatives were developed by Indigenous peoples with particular association to World Heritage sites in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States of America. And I would like to pose at the moment because those people cannot be here today and I wanted to pay my respects to them for their hard work and their commitments and for their powerful words in trying to get an indigenous voice heard in matters to do with world heritage.

So in the year 2000, December 2000, the first ever World Heritage Indigenous Peoples Forum was held. It was held as part of the 24th session of the World Heritage Committee in Cairns, Australia. The Forum conveyed its concerns about the lack of involvement of Indigenous peoples in the protection of their knowledge, traditions and cultural values which apply to their ancestral lands within all comprising sites now designated as World Heritage areas.

Furthermore the Forum made a particular request. It requested the establishment of a World Heritage Indigenous Peoples Council of Experts - WHIPCOE as it was mentioned before. This was to be established to provide expert Indigenous advice on World Heritage.

The Indigenous Forum in Cairns considered that the application of traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of Indigenous peoples and traditional local communities is vital to the conservation and sustainable use of the biological diversity at many World Heritage areas.

The forum made some very specific recommendations: For those of us in the UNESCO World Heritage Centre to work in collaboration with our colleagues from the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. We were asked to charter, develop guidelines or some recommendation on the conduct of cultural, environmental and social impact assessment regarding development on sacred sites, lands or waters occupied or used by Indigenous and traditional local communities with specific reference also to World heritage sites.

The Forum in Cairns also recommended to the state parties to the Convention that they work in partnership with Indigenous and traditional local community organizations.

So what the Forum was saying: there are issues that need to be discussed; we want a Council of Experts to participate in most discussions; we want the World Heritage Convention secretariat to work with another Convention secretariat to try and develop guidelines, best practices and so on…

And that Forum also called on state parties to take a cooperative and partnership approach to working with Indigenous communities with respect to World Heritage conservation. Very far reaching recommendations from that forum…

The idea to establish this World Heritage Indigenous Peoples Council of Experts was further discussed at a meeting in Winnipeg, Canada in November and Luis was there…along with others and representatives and indigenous experts from Australia, Belize, Canada, New Zealand , the USA. And we also had with us representatives of the Technical Advisory Group to the World Heritage Committee, cultural heritage experts, natural heritage experts, conservation experts, a representative from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human rights, and Luis was there representing Yachay Wasi and I was there from the World Heritage Centre.

The group that met in Winnipeg recommended that WHIPCOE should be established, that it should work in cooperation with states parties and all those involved to insure that these Indigenous voices are heard in efforts to protect and promote the world's natural and cultural heritage. It was also intended to bring Indigenous competencies and expertise to complement other expert groups in order to support the objectives of the World Heritage Convention, to support and enhance best practices for World Heritage conservation and to build and service a network for Indigenous peoples to achieve the above purposes. Unfortunately, the World Heritage Committee, when it met in December last year in Helsinki, did not support the establishment of WHIPCOE. It did not support its establishment; it did not support funding for further meetings to discuss the idea.

However, the Committee did recognize that these were issues of importance that needed to be discussed. So it suggested that like minded states parties, Indigenous communities work together, network together. The Committee suggested that professional research in the field be encouraged and that there be an exchange of views on the subject.

In this context, the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO, where I work, is now discussing very actively with our colleagues from the Secretariat of the Convention for Biological Diversity how we can move ahead on the development of guidelines, best practice examples for the management and conservation of World Heritage properties, particularly when they include or are in their entirety sacred sites or are on lands or waters occupied or used by Indigenous and traditional local communities, as it has been recommended by the World Heritage Committee.

Of course, we expect that many more places of importance to Indigenous peoples are going to continue to be nominated for inclusion in the World Heritage list by signatory states parties.

This is particularly going to be the case because most of our efforts now in the implementation of the Convention are focused on strengthening work in the Pacific, which is the region in which I work, the Caribbean and also in Africa.

Our job in the World Heritage Centre is to stand ready to assist any states parties and particularly those from those regions, should they request any assistance, whether that assistance is technical and/or financial assistance and we do have a World Heritage Fund to support World Heritage activities.

If any of those states parties should request assistance in particular to ensure meaningful consultation and involvement of Indigenous peoples in all aspects of World Heritage conservation, we have the capacity to provide that assistance. That's all I wanted to say now. I tried to bring you up to date with the latest developments in this very particular area of UNESCO's work and how it relates to Indigenous peoples.



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