Let’s safeguard our intangible heritage; it forms an integral part of our identity

Sunday November 14 2010


Why do we need to safeguard our intangible heritage? This is a valid question, especially now as the fifth session of Unesco’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage prepares to meet in Nairobi from Monday.

The international agenda is crowded, with countries hit hard by the economic crisis. In this difficult context, what is intangible heritage and why does it matter? The truth is that our intangible heritage is fundamental to our identities and is part of the framework that allows us to understand and to act.

Take the example of the Mijikenda, the guardians of the Kaya forests on Kenya’s coast. Their traditions provide the practical and ethical framework that organises most aspects of their lives, including the rituals marking major steps along the way.

The knowledge transmitted from their ancestors guides them in their husbandry of natural resources and helps them to preserve the exceptional biodiversity from which they live.

The Mijikenda communities who no longer live in the forests are losing links with the habitat and the habits of their ancestors. Their cultural practices are disappearing quickly, accelerating social dislocation and worsening the threat posed by the uncontrolled exploitation of the forests.

This is why the traditions and practices of the Mijikenda were placed last year on The List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

Safeguarding the intangible heritage of the Mijikenda means protecting their way of living together and with nature. It means preserving a system of medical knowledge and practice. It means strengthening a way of seeing the world.

In sum, it means strengthening the tools that allow the Mijikenda to respond to the social, economic, and environmental challenges. Intangible heritage is not only about understanding reality; it is about shaping it.

The same is true for the irrigators’ tribunals that regulate the use of water on the plain of Murcia and Valencia in Spain. These traditional forms of order and justice settle disputes orally and swiftly in an arid and highly agricultural part of Spain.

They are vehicles of tradition and knowledge recognised by Spanish law and respected by the community. This is why the tribunals were in 2009 included on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Intangible heritage is as important as financial power and natural resources for responding to the world’s current crisis. People are the real wealth of nations, as the UNDP Human Development Report rightly reminds us.

If we allow our intangible heritage to deplete at rates similar to those of our natural resources, humanity will lose unique ways of understanding reality and interacting with our environment.

Ratified by 130 countries, the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage is guided by this spirit of solidarity and discovery. It brings together cultural expressions from across the world.

An instrument for dialogue and peace, the convention is also a tool for development and growth. Its impact ranges from preserving the environment and reinforcing the social power of women to fostering income and job generation.

Above all, the convention is a unique prism for understanding the world in order to shape it for the common good. Our intangible cultural heritage needs to be protected from the pressures of time and the vagaries of change. The Convention provides a vital tool for this. But we should be careful how we use it and ward off all attempts that seek to instrumentalise it.  

The responsibility of the 24 members of Unesco’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage lies here. They have been elected by the states parties to the convention to consider the weight of each of the 52 proposals for inclusion on the lists.

Their decision is awaited by communities who fear the erosion of their traditions and those who see the need for recognition of their cultural expressions.

The letter of the convention must be respected, and so must its spirit. Our credibility lies in exercising both, over the long term. This is how we will preserve humanity’s great cultural heritage, whatever its nature.

Mrs Bokova is Director-General of UNESCO