Less than 9% of UNESCO World Heritage sites are in Africa. Experts say the price is too Eurocentric. But in Africa, there is also a lack of structures and political will to preserve cultural and natural heritage.
This year, eight mosques in northern Côte d’Ivoire and Ivindo National Park in Gabon landed one of the coveted places on the UNESCO World Heritage List. In addition to the two sites in Africa, the responsible committee at its 44th session in the Chinese port city of Fuzhou nominated 16 candidates from Europe and 16 others from other regions of the world as new World Heritage sites.
The geographical imbalance in the attribution of titles by UNESCO is not new. Almost half of the 1,154 UNESCO World Heritage sites are in Europe, less than 100 in Africa. Kenyan George Abungu has a simple explanation for this: “The process is too Eurocentric.
UNESCO Convention too Eurocentric
George Abungu is an archaeologist who was director of the National Museum of Kenya. He has a clear vision of the work of UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural and Communications Organization – and refers to the founding year of 1972, when “mostly white men” were created. launched the convention.
“Naturally, this is Eurocentric, and African countries have to prove the extraordinary value of their sites to humanity through a Western perspective in order to be on the list,” Abungu said in an interview with DW.
Christoph Brumann from the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle shares the same point of view: “Initially, world heritage was more or less tacitly designed around the elite and the monumental heritage of Europe. The emphasis was on cathedrals, palaces, temples, old historic towns. Brumann said in an interview with DW.
Lack of experience and funding for applications
Criticism about it had already been made about 30 years ago, said Brumann, who then led to reforms. Today, common heritage and cultural landscapes, where human-environment interaction is particularly interesting, could also appear on the official list. This could help African candidates. But the problem, said Brumann, like Abungu, is that “there are too few applications from African countries.”
This is also due to the complex application requirements: folders with hundreds and thousands of pages must be compiled for an application. “It’s just a lot easier to manage for countries with better know-how, more experience with monuments and nature conservation, and more money than for many African countries,” said Brumann.
UNESCO intends to do more for Africa
The capacities are indeed low, also admitted Mechtild Rössler. She has been the director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center in Paris since 2015. “Nonetheless, we have made progress,” said Rössler. UNESCO supports African countries with donations from the “African World Heritage Fund”.
The intense discussions at the summit, however, revealed a need for further action, said Rössler: “We see that we need to do a lot more in some regions to prepare strong nominations and increase capacity building in conservation, management on land. field. and risk preparedness, because many World Heritage sites are in danger – this is a huge task to accomplish. “
Spread the responsibility over several shoulders
Universities should play a more important role in this regard, according to Rössler, and become more involved in the protection of cultural heritage in particular. Their experts could help assemble studies and documents for a country’s request. But governments also have a duty, she added.
Kenyan archaeologist Abungu also criticized that universities have long been reluctant, but that many are also struggling to survive. The African World Heritage Fund has to serve 54 countries with limited resources, he said, and that is not possible. UNESCO’s strategy to create more balance in nominations around the world, he argued, has failed.
Economic interests take precedence
African governments face other challenges: they need to jumpstart the economy, buy vaccines, and create jobs for people to eat. “The main reason why African governments have not pushed for the inscription of their territories lately is the fear that they will not be able to carry out development projects afterwards,” said Abungu. in an interview with DW.
National parks, for example: communities were moved there during colonial times and now they want their land back, but there are often valuable minerals or other resources there. In Tanzania’s Nature Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Selous, for example, construction of a mega-dam is planned despite strong criticism.
To remain a natural heritage site, the landscape should remain intact. So, for similar reasons, a particularly large number of UNESCO World Heritage sites in Africa are considered threatened, Abungu said. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an armed conflict rages over raw materials, among others, sites have already been removed from the list.
Collectively safeguard our common heritage
The much-vaunted tourism sector also offers little incentive for states, municipalities or other investors to invest money and work in a candidacy for UNESCO designation, Abungu explained. Tourism is far too underdeveloped in most regions for a UNESCO World Heritage site to attract large numbers of visitors.
“African governments need to understand that the convention is a vehicle to help them conserve valuable sites,” said Abungu. But politicians have their own interests, they want to exploit resources, create jobs and make a profit. This is why the only way to preserve these sites would be to help the global north: “We must change our strategy, invest more from north to south to protect the common heritage of humanity.