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The Importance of Law in Cultural Heritage Protection: A conversation with Amanda Byer

If we want to make sure heritage is available for future research, education and public interpretation, we need laws to preserve it. This is the basis of Amanda Byer’s NEXUS 1492 research. In this post, Amanda answers some of our questions.

Interview with Amanda Byer

Amanda, can you tell us something about the role of heritage laws in the Caribbean?

These laws help define what is deserving of protection. This is important, because if you think heritage is a national park, I think it’s a cultural festival, and somebody else thinks it’s an Amerindian petroglyph, we’re not talking about the same thing when we refer to heritage.

Law helps us define and categorise heritage, and knowing that there are different types of heritage means we can develop the right mechanisms for protection based on their particular features and needs. Law helps us create the standards necessary to assess what is significant and worthy of protection, and develop mechanisms to enforce rules to keep heritage and people accessing heritage, safe.

Protection includes standards for permitting so that archaeologists are qualified, monitored and apply best practice in terms of collection, processing and storage of the archaeological heritage. Protection can also refer to enhancement of the heritage institutions such as museums and historical societies to document and store heritage objects, and support implementation of heritage law, such as assessing heritage objects and sites where there is conflict over use.

Currently in the Eastern Caribbean, there are few heritage protection laws and these tend to be outdated and overlapping. There is a need to identify the gaps and consolidate and update the rules so protecting heritage is properly understood and effective.

Natural heritage in GrenadaWhy is it important to create laws that protect Caribbean heritage specifically?

Heritage is very important to national identity; it’s the foundation upon which the culture of a people is built. Many countries in the Caribbean have had their heritage suppressed or erased during colonialism. Without legal protection, heritage will be eroded and this can result in cultural loss, not just the festivals and traditional expressions we see performed, but the skills, knowledge, discoveries and achievements that contribute to these societies as we know them.

This is especially important for the small island developing states of the Caribbean that are economically and environmentally vulnerable. These islands lack the financial resources to protect heritage. Heritage objects are vulnerable to illicit trade as heritage sites are physically exposed and demand stimulates trafficking in impoverished communities. And as former colonies, modern Caribbean societies have to grapple with painful pasts of slavery and genocide and what such a heritage means to national identity.

Previously, you’ve mentioned sustainable development. What is the relation between heritage and sustainable development?

Heritage law has many applications to current sustainable development issues in the Caribbean, such as climate change and environmental protection, tourism, education. For example, an archaeological site can be linked to an important historical event or a place of natural beauty that could be a potential tourist attraction. An archaeological site can also be inside a mangrove forest that is important for stabilisation of the coast and plays an important role in climate change education.

The fact that a site is part of the nation’s heritage passed on from ancestors is a strong emotional link for enhancing conservation efforts that are community-driven. And conservation across the generations is what sustainable development is about – making sure you use resources in such a way that future generations are not impaired.

Even though heritage is about what’s handed down from the past, it is very much linked to the present needs of people in developing countries and can amplify many of those issues.

Built heritage in Grenada

Amanda Byer is studying cultural heritage law within the NEXUS1492 project. She analyses the heritage laws of the English-speaking Caribbean and makes recommendations for improving the legislative framework. According to Amanda, law can and should play a bigger role in the protection of heritage.