PastForward Preview: The Culture-Nature Approach at World Heritage Sites

By Forum Online posted 09-19-2018 14:06


Editor’s note: The National Trust for Historic Preservation is partnering with the United States Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (US/ICOMOS) around one of the main conference themes at PastForward 2018 in San Francisco—the culture-nature connection. The discussion will kick off Tuesday, November 13, with a US/ICOMOS symposium called Forward Together: A Culture-Nature Journey, Towards More Effective Conservation in a Changing World. Registration is available through PastForward, and discounts are offered for those attending both events. For more information about the culture-nature track, check out our reading list.

We interviewed Douglas C. Comer, chair of the US/ICOMOS board of trustees, about the culture-nature connection, successful integration of culture and nature, and goals for the future. 


What is “culture-nature”?  

I will discuss culture-nature from the perspective of World Heritage Sites and their management. These sites are integral to the mission of US/ICOMOS, which fosters heritage conservation and historic preservation at the national and international levels through education and training, international exchanges of people and information, technical assistance, documentation, advocacy, and other activities consistent with the goals of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). 

As of 2018, 845 World Heritage Sites are inscribed as “cultural sites,” 209 as “natural,” and 38 as “mixed” per the 10 criteria—six termed cultural and four natural—specified in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention to identify outstanding universal value (OUV). Traditionally, cultural sites have included monuments, groups of buildings, and sites that are the “works of man or the combined works of nature and man.” Natural sites, on the other hand, include natural features, geological and physiographical formations, and precisely delineated natural areas. In fact, all historic sites have both natural and cultural resources and all are subject to natural processes and cultural practices. A “culture-nature” approach to conservation recognizes this and requires that we look at where these resources and practices meet to identify challenges as well as the solutions that create sustainable management. 

One example of a World Heritage site that necessitates a culture-nature approach is Petra, Jordan, nicknamed the “Rose Red City” for the color of its famed carved sandstone tombs. While Petra was inscribed on the World Heritage List with reference only to cultural criteria, its natural setting contributes mightily to the wonder that the site inspires. Petra was inscribed in 1985, slightly more than a decade after the ratification of the World Heritage Convention. The nomination dossier was only a few pages in length in those days, and it is clear in retrospect that sites were being inscribed purely because of their obvious OUV with no real thought being given to the feasibility of effective and sustainable management. Had feasibility been assessed and the nature-culture interface considered, problems that have arisen since the inscription—such as increased flooding due to nearby development and the visual intrusion of new building on the ancient city—could have been anticipated. This process is essential to fully realizing the value of World Heritage Sites as both models of sustainable management and engines of local economic and social benefit. 

The sandstone tombs in Petra, Jordan. | Credit: Tom Mayes

Can you provide an example of the successful integration of cultural and natural heritage?

Unsurprisingly, some of the best examples of the successful integration of nature and culture can be found in countries with the longest experience of managing protected areas. The United States National Park Service (NPS) is one such example. 

The NPS was created a little more than 100 years ago. Mistakes were made at first, and it took decades to acknowledge and correct them. In the beginning, national parks were essentially thought of as autonomous protected areas of primarily aesthetic natural value. People who lived in the parks were moved out, and their cultural heritage and interests were not formally recognized. After about 50 years of growing resistance from Native American groups that had been expelled from the parks as well as from other local communities, the NPS put an emphasis on recognizing the needs of the indigenous and local “gateway communities.” 

For roughly the next 25 years, the NPS focused on forging and improving relationships with gateway communities and indigenous groups by identifying opportunities for social and economic benefit, including the recognition of cultural heritage. For example, services such as lodging and food were increasingly moved out of parks and into communities. Nonpolluting forms of transportation from communities to parks encouraged visitors to stay in the communities longer and, in fact, to consider them part of the park experience. Indigenous groups were encouraged to provide interpretation to visitors, which provided both economic benefits and a cultural exchange with visitors. In the last 25 years, the NPS has also created networks of national trails to link communities together and establish historic areas outside of national parks. New conservation education opportunities emerged from telling the story of the historic and ongoing relationship between humans and the land. 

Why is it important to have a conversation about this issue now? Why is it important to cultivate an international perspective?

It is vitally important that we acknowledge and understand the culture-nature dialectic because, in many ways, globalization has heightened threats to World Heritage Sites. It has provided access to sites, even those previously considered isolated and exotic, for a great many visitors. It has opened global markets for cultural and natural resources and, in doing so, has created added incentive to loot and poach at World Heritage Sites.

We now know that sustainable management of World Heritage Sites is not possible without a holistic culture-nature approach. This includes garnering the support of local communities, and indigenous groups, and it is imperative that their economic and social needs be considered. Provisions must be made for the continuity of traditional lifeways by supporting traditional activities that help preserve cultural resource and conserve natural ones and finding ways to compensate for activities that have become damaging to those goals.

The history of the NPS provides some reason for optimism—World Heritage Sites might be able to benefit not only from sound preservation and conservation strategies but also from becoming instruments for community benefit. Conversely, an international perspective can bolster NPS efforts to counter threats to World Heritage Sites in the United States—such as the Grand Canyon. Threats include a cable car that would convey 10,000 people per day to the floor of the canyon; resumption of uranium mining; and construction of additional facilities for visitors, which would overwhelm the capacity of the park. All of these also constitute threats to indigenous groups that are closely associated with the canyon as well as to other local communities.

 An international perspective can reinforce resistance to these proposed developments. With reference to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, ICOMOS has formed a working group focused on how indigenous heritage intersects with conservation, preservation, and education at World Heritage Sites. This working group can draw public attention to the threats that development at the Grand Canyon poses to Native American groups such as the Havasupai, Hopi, and Navajo.

What are your main objectives for the symposium? 

One objective is simply to promote dialogue among people who have focused for the most part on either cultural values and their preservation or the conservation of natural resources. This will continue the Nature-Culture Journey begun at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress of 2016. Sessions held at the ICOMOS General Assembly in New Delhi, India, in 2017 provided the second part of that journey, and this symposium will be the third. A specific desired output is a San Francisco Declaration that acknowledges the need to understand the culture-nature dynamic and lays out the first steps in that direction, including studies to identify potential World Heritage Sites. Such studies would include evaluating cultural and natural resources, processes, and the relationships between them—as well as evaluating existing infrastructure. These studies will help identify the facilities, equipment, personnel, policies, regulations, programs, and activities that are essential to sustainable management of a World Heritage Site, which must include engaging local and indigenous communities in managing the site and providing them economic and social benefits. 

Since this will require more resources than have been available for studies and planning in the past, another symposium objective should be resolutions in support of the World Heritage Convention signed by the governor of California and the mayor of San Francisco. Securing these will help build momentum and support, which might come from private-sector companies that provide goods and services; philanthropic organizations; or international assistance organizations, both nonprofit and government.

View of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

How are you going to measure the impact of the work done at the symposium? How do you plan to keep this conversation going after November 13?

We would like to begin several initiatives in support of the declaration signed at this conference—including establishing partnerships to provide coursework for universities in Africa, as suggested by the Africa Unit at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Center. Many countries on the African continent have very limited resources for studies and planning, and partner universities could help them develop this capacity. Success would be measured through the number of associations formed, the number of studies conducted, and the number of sites where studies yield effective and sustainable management.

US/ICOMOS will also participate on the ICOMOS Indigenous Heritage Work Group. We would like to collaborate with IUCN to involve indigenous groups in formulating management structures at World Heritage Sites.

As chair of the US/ICOMOS board of trustees, what will your focus be in the upcoming year?

My focus will be on delivering the message that we must turn our attention to the nature-culture dynamic at current and potential World Heritage Sites, both in the United States and around the world. Several World Heritage Sites in the United States, including the Grand Canyon, are fighting not only to prevent environmental damage from proposed development but also to acknowledge and respect the rights of indigenous groups in the face of development threats.

We would also like to expand our international exchange program, hosting emerging professionals with an emphasis on countries where World Heritage Sites face similar issues—and visiting those countries. We would like to work closely with universities to conduct the studies necessary to identify potential future sites. To accomplish these goals, we must partner with ICOMOS national and scientific committees; our sister UNESCO organizations; and philanthropic, governmental, and private-sector organizations to find financial and institutional support for sustainable management of World Heritage Sites. Sustainable management must take the relationship between culture and nature at all historic sites into account.

If you are participating in the PastForward Challenge for points and prizes (Gamification), please enter the following passcode for the "Blog Post: US/ICOMOS" challenge: ICOMOS.


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