Beyond Between’ by @solavisions. Reproduced with the kind permission of the artist exclusively for the purpose of this symposium on Völkerrechtsblog.

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Navigating the Complex Interplay of Politics, Conservation, and Community in World Heritage Management


Where heritage sites are not just cultural landmarks but also political tools, the question of epistemic authority – who decides things, and how – in heritage management becomes impossible to ignore. This complexity is further magnified when these sites, already entangled in political dynamics, face the escalating threats of climate change, intensifying the debate over management priorities and heightening the risks of loss and damage to our shared cultural legacy.

Set against this context, our short roundtable aimed to delve into the intricate balance between the conservation of heritage sites and their use as instruments of soft power by nation-states. With thanks to the organisers at the EUI Cultural Heritage Working Group (see Bridging Epistemic Divides), who are editing this series, our interventions stem from varying contexts. Elisa and Tatiana work in the Florence municipality on world heritage sites and historical urban landscapes, Roger is based out of Barcelona, researching and advising on cultural heritage, while Tejas has emigrated to Cambridge from Bangalore, focusing on international environmental law and development. From these backgrounds, we hoped to especially confront the challenges of politicisation and the pressing need for community-centric approaches in heritage management, especially in light of climate change induced loss and damage.

This blogpost revisits that dialogue, which followed a semi-structured, conversational format.


Tejas:  In an era where cultural heritage sites are increasingly vulnerable to loss and damage, particularly from climate change and political conflicts, how do these sites transform into powerful instruments of soft power, influencing international relations and cultural diplomacy?

Roger: In a nutshell, the 1972 World Heritage Convention was an intergovernmental creation. As Sophie has introduced, the World Heritage List was conceived as a State-centred inventory system (see Refusal and loss in Cultural Heritage Law); and the World Heritage Committee (WH COM) was created as a diplomatic decision-making body. Hence, it would be impossible to speak about World Heritage not being a soft power tool. The advantages of listing properties are many: heritage protection at the highest level, boosting tourism opportunities, and of course, international positioning. States “leading” the WH List don’t seem to agree that a change in the inscription rationale is needed: focusing on valuing underrepresented geographical areas, heritage categories, and significant narratives. This, however, ends up creating a double-edged sword. Will premature inscriptions favour the site’s protection mechanisms, or will they contribute to a weaker and less legitimate List in the long run? For example, we witnessed the Extended 44th Session of the World Heritage Committee (44 COM) as a worrying display of politicisation and state-centred nominations. In inscribing more sites to the WH List, decisions of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – UNESCO’s Advisory Bodies – were deliberately ignored, adhering less and less to the inscription criteria. As 21 nominations were initially proposed for inscription, 37 got finally inscribed (including a property that wasn’t even evaluated). This represents a serious problem, and the scientific credibility of the List stands in a very fragile position. What is more important, listing as many properties as possible (quantity) or having solid inscription and justification procedures (quality)?

Elisa: How do you think the World Heritage List inscription steps could be re-written in a way that the procedure is faster, more community-shared, less bureaucratic and effective at the same time?

Roger: Manvita and Anurag (see Private heritage management for World Heritage City) have rightly pointed out the difficulty of delineating responsibility for heritage management between State-led stakeholders. To my mind, communities must be put at the centre of the World Heritage nomination processes. Heritage is for the people to celebrate, and it is people who should manage properties as part of their cultural identity. State-pushed nominations that completely ignore communities and end up being listed as World Heritage due to political agendas are doomed to fail at many managerial levels. Or worse, they can lead to international tensions, force refugees and internally displaced peoples, and suppress communities’ rights over their land. In the coming years, one hopes to see a shift with the newly-framed “Upstream Process”, in which UNESCO’s Advisory Bodies (ICOMOS and IUCN) intercept nominations from day one, and hence stop politicised, nationalistic initiatives (see When did everyone start talking about heritage restitution?) where communities are unaware that their heritage places are going to be listed, or simply pushed away from decision-making processes. Additionally, using holistic approaches for heritage conservation and capacity-building (such as the recently-coined term “People-Nature-Culture” approach), allows properties to be managed using cross-cutting perspectives: not only cultural or natural, not only tangible or intangible. However, there is a long way to go before all WH nominations are community-based, -shared, -drafted, -presented, and -managed. One hopes to see more capacity-building mechanisms where managerial decisions at all levels are transferred (back) to communities so they have the necessary tools and skills to take care of heritage sites properly.

Elisa: I believe it is evident that the World Heritage system, enshrined under the Convention concerning the protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, is less ‘community-oriented’ than other UNESCO programs and conventions, such as the Man and the Biosphere Programme, the Global Geoparks initiative, and the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. From the latter, an important lesson could be learnt: communities are the custodians of intangible practices, cultural expressions and traditions, some of which, at the very same time, underlie the tangible heritage, keeping it vibrant and alive. For instance, in the Historic Centre of Florence, gentrification of the urban area – characterised by out-migration of residents and loss of traditional stores and productions -, primarily induced by policies conducive to increasing tourism that is itself already classifiable as abnormal, is leading to a loss of the site’s authenticity. This loss of residents, city-users and local small and medium-sized merchants, along with their knowledge, is significant since it involves the intangible element of artistry, one time practised by artisans in their workshop, whose products were largely purchased by the inhabitants. Artistry, in effect, represents an attribute that, in conjunction with other tangible components, contributes to the World Heritage Outstanding Universal Value. Thus, in order to preserve the integrity and authenticity of these WH places, a duty to protect local communities, repositories of know-hows to be passed on and kept alive, should be recognised and implemented. A solution could be achieved by actively involving them more in decision-making processes as their interest and well-being affects the good management of physical places. Within Western countries, the World Heritage system is pivoting towards the concept of management plans, which are now expected to be, hopefully, shared with local stakeholders. However, I believe we need to adopt approaches developed within other programs as well as solutions that took place in non-Western countries, where local communities are given a prominent and substantial position in cultural heritage management. One example, but there are so many more, are the terracotta mosques and other religious buildings in Mali. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but here the line between tangible and intangible is really fine. The thinner this line, the greater the involvement of local communities seems to be. The Old Towns of Djenné, the city of Timbuktu, the Tomb of Askia are World Heritage sites that still stand thanks to the construction techniques put into practice by local people who were able to rebuild them after natural and recent wartime disasters. This dynamic demonstrates that a “community-based approach” to the protection, management, and enhancement of natural and cultural heritage sites creates benefits both for the tangible and intangible heritage and for the people themselves, who make their knowledge available in exchange for a more accurate assessment of their interest by institutional powers.

Tejas: Can you speak more to the critical role of intergenerational knowledge transfer in the preservation of world heritage sites? Is there a risk of over-reliance on community guardianship, especially in light of the limitations over proprietary rights that Sabrina Ferrazzi has discussed? (See A world of its own).

Tatiana: A fundamental principle in heritage studies today asserts that heritage must be actively lived and utilized. The original practices of authentic custodians are often key to creating sustainable management systems for these sites. Indeed, sustainability is an inherent characteristic of world heritage. The fact that numerous world heritage sites have endured through centuries, even millennia, is a testament to this. These sites are deeply embedded in their context, often linked to sustainable practices of use and conservation passed down through generations. A prime example is the Ifugao Rice Terraces, a world heritage site that has existed for 2000 years. These terraces represent an ancient yet effective technology, remaining productive and resilient over centuries. Their design, harmonizing with the natural movements of air and ground, exemplifies sustainability maintained over hundreds of years. Intergenerational knowledge transfer is vital in confronting contemporary challenges. It provides communities with adaptive resilience, essential for dealing with climate change, natural disasters, and human interventions, and also plays a crucial role in mitigating the effects of urbanization and globalisation. The continual practice of these traditional methods ensures that heritage sites remain vibrant and dynamic, integral to the cultural identity of their communities.

Recognising the vital contribution of traditional knowledge to heritage preservation, it is crucial to acknowledge its potential limitations in addressing the intricate challenges of contemporary conservation. In certain contexts, formal and institutionalized groups may have superior resource capacity to meet conservation needs, particularly with the declining presence of traditional knowledge bearers.

Concurrently, it is important to question the assumption that diverse institutional actors, each with varying expertise, inherently possess sustainable conservation knowledge to devise optimal preservation strategies. This underscores the necessity of a collaborative paradigm, incorporating diverse perspectives and expertise to enhance the discourse on heritage conservation.

Tatiana: Combining local knowledge with contemporary conservation strategies creates a balanced approach that effectively preserves both the cultural and environmental facets of world heritage sites. How do we especially confront this in light of loss and damage occurring owing to climate change? Is it possible to evaluate to what extent the loss and damage of the know-hows, skills, and cultural expressions is attributable to climate change?

Tejas:  Evaluating the impact of climate change on the intangible cultural heritage of indigenous populations, including skills, know-hows, and cultural expressions, requires a nuanced and comprehensive approach. Developing a widely accepted impact assessment methodology is not only possible but essential to determine the extent of loss or damage due to climate change.  This would enable a broader, more coherent understanding of impacts across different cultural contexts, and support global collaboration in heritage preservation. In contrast to fragmented methods, which have led to inconsistent data and varied, more politicised interpretations, a standardised approach ensures comparability of results, facilitating more effective global strategies and unified action in safeguarding our diverse cultural heritage.

Creating this methodology demands interdisciplinary collaboration, combining the expertise of climate scientists, ethnographers, sociologists, heritage conservationists, and crucially, the indigenous communities themselves. The process should be iterative and adaptive, integrating the communities’ heritage. Indigenous communities should spearhead the monitoring efforts using participatory approaches, as they are aware of and encounter the changes in their environment and cultural practices. Simultaneously, utilising advanced statistical models and attribution science while safeguarding against replicating existing biases is key, especially to discern whether changes in cultural practices are directly due to climate change or other socio-economic factors like globalisation or urbanisation.

Long-term studies are essential to track the trends and changes in intangible cultural heritage, distinguishing between natural cycles of change within indigenous cultures and those induced by external stressors like climate change. Integrating indigenous knowledge with scientific research offers a more robust assessment of the impacts of climate change. Any developed methodology must also undergo validation and sensitivity analysis to ensure its robustness. It should evolve based on feedback from actual policy implementations and conservation practices. We have seen this is possible with the Siku-Inuit-Hila collaborative project, where indigenous communities and climate scientists work together, combining traditional ice knowledge with modern climate data to track and predict changes in the environment. This partnership has empowered local communities in adapting to climate change.

Looking to the Future: Inclusive and Sustainable Heritage Management

For us, it is clear that the intricate interplay of politics, conservation, and community in the management of world heritage sites presents both challenges and opportunities. The key epistemic takeaway from our dialogue, and indeed this broader Symposium, is the imperative need for an integrative approach that recognizes and respects the diverse perspectives and knowledge systems involved in heritage management. This approach must balance the political aspects and conservation needs, while placing communities and their invaluable indigenous knowledge at the forefront.

The threats posed by climate change to these precious sites add another layer of complexity, underscoring the urgency for adaptive and resilient management strategies. Our conversation highlights the importance of developing methodologies that not only assess the impact of climate change on heritage sites but also incorporate the insights and experiences of local communities.

In moving forward, it is essential to foster a more inclusive and equitable dialogue among all stakeholders involved in heritage management, especially those voices are often marginalized in these discussions. By doing so, we can ensure that our collective efforts in preserving world heritage sites are not just about safeguarding relics of the past, but also about nurturing living, dynamic entities that connect us to our history, our identity, and our future. The path ahead requires a collective effort that is innovative, inclusive, and rooted in a deep understanding of the multifaceted nature of heritage management. Jadé, Raghavi, and Jessica (see Bridging Epistemic Divides) introduced early on in our conversations that this call for epistemic pluriversity is not new, and each of our contributions, we hope, have highlighted further tensions with taking these to practice.

Tejas Rao

Tejas Rao is a PhD Researcher with the Centre for Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Governance at the Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge.

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Elisa Fallani

Elisa Fallani specialized in Management and Conservation of World Heritage at Palazzo Spinelli. She works as an administrator at the Culture Department of the Municipality of Florence.

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Roger Negredo

Roger Negredo has worked for UNESCO and its advisory  bodies (ICOMOS and ICCROM). He evaluated and participated in the  inscription process of several (tentative) World Heritage properties  worldwide, while living in Rome, Beirut and Berlin.

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Tatiana Rozochkina

Tatiana Rozochkina is currently collaborating with Florence World Heritage and Relations with UNESCO Office as a research scholar (HeRe_Lab, Municipality of Florence, University of Florence).

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