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The dark side of protecting cultural heritage

World Heritage status comes at a cost to the local population’s human rights. PhD Candidate Sophie Starrenburg explains the drawbacks of poetic terms such as ‘the cultural heritage of mankind’.

World Heritage sites are major tourist attractions. Just think of the Buddhist temple Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Egyptian pyramids in Giza and the Acropolis, the oldest city fortress towering over the Greek capital, Athens. Many holidaymakers schedule their holidays around visits to these beautiful hotspots. But what tourists don’t realise is that in some parts of the world, the local population pays the price for that World Heritage status. Some communities are even evicted from their homes under the guise of ‘protecting heritage’.

What is World Heritage? And what is the difference between World Heritage and intangible cultural heritage?

UNESCO is a UN organisation that promotes the protection of cultural heritage. Dating back to 1978, countries can request that their monuments and cultural landscapes are placed on the World Heritage List. In the Netherlands, sites awarded World Heritage status include Kinderdijk, the Eise Eisinga Planetarium in Franeker and the Grachtengordel (literally ‘Canal belt’) in Amsterdam. Since 2003, there has also been an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ list of cultural activities such as traditions and artisan crafts. Baguette making (France), batik fabric techniques (Indonesia) and reggae music (Jamaica) have been awarded ‘intangible cultural heritage’ status since the this list was created. Examples of intangible cultural heritage in the Netherlands include the artisan craft of the miller. For the purposes of this article, ‘heritage’ refers to both World Heritage and intangible cultural heritage.

The problem with powerful language

Having conducted research into the impact of protecting heritage on local populations, Starrenburg maintains that ‘international interests’ can clash with the real interests of individuals and local communities. And that conflict arises as a result of powerful language. She explains: ‘It sounds wonderful when we use poetic terms to say we want to protect “the cultural heritage of mankind”. But that kind of vocabulary isn’t entirely innocent.’ Starrenburg adds that it’s often used to gloss over harmful practices.

The Hampi temple (see frame text), Sandip Kalal through Unsplash +

Starrenburg continues, ‘Some World Heritage sites still have local communities living there – and the areas can be vast. Those tasked with protecting heritage might think it’s in the interests of that piece of heritage to do a complete overhaul. So what they do is prohibit the local population from continuing to do what they’ve been doing there for centuries: simply living and working. If you weigh up the international interest against the interests of the individual and the local community, priority will always be given to the international interest as it’s larger scale and “hence” more important.’

Evictions in Hampi

The town of Hampi in India is one such place where World Heritage status has come at a cost to the local population. The Group of Monuments at Hampi were placed on the World Heritage List in 1986. Since the year 2000, hundreds of the town’s residents have been evicted from their homes in the name of heritage protection, including 300 in 2001 and 326 in 2011 alone. Starrenburg explains, ‘The history of the Hampi temple dates back hundreds of years. There’s been a market there ever since the temple was built. Over the years, people started living on the site of the temple. They turned shops into their homes, and from there they sold food and souvenirs to pilgrims. That wasn’t a problem at first, but once the temple became a World Heritage site those activities were closely scrutinised. The local people’s activities were considered violations of that cultural heritage, resulting in evictions.’

Who do we protect heritage for, and why?

Starrenburg argues that the UNESCO World Heritage Lists have become highly competitive. ‘Each country wants as many aspects of their cultural heritage on the list as possible as it generates income and enhances their prestige. But once something has actually been designated as heritage, nobody checks whether the country in question is preserving that piece of heritage in a way that aligns with human rights standards.’

Protecting heritage shouldn’t be a goal in itself, maintains Starrenburg, an ardent traveller whose research was driven by her passion for the beauty of heritage. ‘We need to think about who it is that we’re protecting heritage for. If it’s for the local population, then something’s going wrong in various parts of the world. And why do we protect heritage? I think it comes down to the connection between heritage and people – that’s where the value of cultural heritage stems from.’

'If we’re protecting heritage for the local population, then something’s going wrong in various parts of the world.'

Public consultation and work for human rights lawyers

In Starrenburg’s view, it’s precisely because of the significance that humanity places on heritage that the interests of local people should be weighed more heavily when it comes to heritage protection. She feels this can be achieved by enhancing their right to public consultation. ‘Local communities need to be listened to during the decision-making process on whether something is to be designated as a piece of heritage. World Heritage status can have such a major impact on the local community; they feel the effects of it.’

Starrenburg also calls on human rights lawyers to consider human rights within the context of heritage protection. ‘There are many opportunities for them – just like in environmental law, where there’s a great deal of focus on the impact on the local population when factories are built, for example. Similarly, human rights should be a priority in heritage matters.’

Sophie Starrenburg is due to defend her thesis entitled ‘Striking a Balance between Local and Global Interests’ on 2 May at 15.00 in the Academy Building. The thesis summary is available here.

Text: Helena Lysaght
Photo at top: The Acropolis of Athens, Greece. Photographer: Constantinos Kollias through Unsplash+ 

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