You may be wondering, “what does heritage have anything to do with sustainable development?”. With tomorrow being World Heritage Day, I thought this is the best time to answer this question. However, before we do that, we need to understand why heritage is important and what is the significance of having an entire day dedicated to celebrating it.
World Heritage Day’s Origin Story
Heritage plays a crucial role in helping us understand our ancestral history. It gives us insights into how our societies behaved in the past and how they have evolved over the years. In doing so, heritage has become the cornerstone of our cultural identity, highlighting our values and traditions. Utilising this rich heritage, we can explain why we are the way we are.
Most commonly, when people think of heritage, they think of historical sites and monuments like the Taj Mahal or the Sistine Chapel. Those are our tangible heritage sites, which largely consists of buildings and artefacts. There are two more types of heritage categories, the natural and the intangible. The natural heritage sites include our rivers, forests, native wildlife, birds and animals. The intangible heritage consists of our festivals, music, dance, folklore, knowledge, skills, etc.
To recognise the importance of heritage, on April 18th, 1982 the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) proposed to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that the world should celebrate 18th April as International Day for Monuments and Sites, also known as World Heritage Day. UNESCO’s general assembly acknowledged this proposal in 1983, making this year the 37th anniversary of World Heritage Day. The day is to remind everyone about the diversity of cultural heritage that exists, the continued efforts needed to protect and preserve it and to draw awareness regarding its current state of vulnerability.
Sustainable Development: Shared Cultures, Shared Heritage, Shared Responsibility
Now that we know why heritage is so precious to us, let us explore what role it plays with regards to sustainable development. We will begin by inspecting World Heritage Day 2020 theme. This year the theme emphasises on the concept of “Shared Cultures, Shared Heritage, Shared Responsibility”. The idea is to showcase that everyone’s heritage is interconnected and that we share similar values and responsibilities when it comes to avoiding conflict and safeguarding for our environment. This is the core principle of sustainable development, that everything is interconnected, and only by working together can we achieve sustainability.
Aside from this year’s theme, conserving our heritage sites has an impact on all the three pillars of sustainability – environmental, social, and economic. Starting with the environmental pillar, a large portion of our heritage sites are natural heritage sites. Preserving these sites means protecting our biodiversity, strengthening our adaptability to climate change and natural disasters, preventing environmental degradation and exploitation of our natural resources. Heritage helps us recognise that humans have always co-existed with nature and not away from it.
Social development is at the heart of heritage conservation. The category of intangible heritage exists today because of the hard work from indigenous people and local communities in protecting cultural knowledge. They have passed this knowledge down to countless generations. Moreover, if heritage sites are maintained well by enhancing the quality of life and wellbeing around the site, it can potentially alleviate poverty and inequality. Finally, heritage sites are an important resource for economic development. They are a hotspot for tourism and if done right can generate additional jobs for the local community.
So, the answer to the question, “what does heritage have anything to do with sustainable development?”, is everything. Apart from contributing to all the three pillars of sustainability, heritage sites provide intangible value to human well-being. Imagine a world without Machu Pichu, the Great Barrier Reef, Galápagos Islands, Serengeti National Park, Sundarbans, or the Ajanta Caves. How incredibly depressing would that be? Our culture and tradition of heritage gives us a sense of wonder, joy, and inspiration. Therefore, we must protect and preserve them. I am going to end this blog with a quote from Getano Lui, Jnr, who perfectly articulates the importance of heritage: “Maintaining one’s culture, values and traditions is beyond price.“
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