UNESCO’s World-Heritage regime began life 40 years ago, when dozens of countries signed up to the idea that the world’s cultural and natural patrimony was under threat not only from “traditional causes of decay” but also because of “changing social and economic conditions”. Among those who endorsed the principle was the Republican administration of Richard Nixon, which gave remarkably high priority to conservation and the environment. (Since then, America has had a stormy relationship with UNESCO; it cut off payments to the agency last year, under a law which denies funding to any body that admits Palestine.)
In many poorer countries which host heritage sites, the biggest changes since 1972 have been exploding populations and a huge rise in global tourism, combined with a lack of the governance needed to cope with both phenomena. Angkor Wat, a temple complex in Cambodia, and the Inca fortress of Machu Picchu in Peru (pictured above) are often cited as places of world-historical importance where a vast influx of tourists may be causing serious damage. By recognising and thus publicising individual sites, UNESCO and other cultural watchdogs risk harming the cause of conservation, which would be better served if visitors to the country were spread around a broader range of places.
But there are no easy ways to maintain heritage sites in relatively poor countries; it requires delicate balancing acts, much local diplomacy and long-term engagement, according to organisations that work in that field. Even a well-functioning state, be it democratic or authoritarian, will fail to conserve monuments unless local people see an interest in maintaining their heritage and using it rationally, says Vincent Michael, new chairman of the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), based in California. The effort will collapse if cultural heritage is seen either as a pesky impediment to making money, or as something to be exploited for short-term gain. Nor should local economies ever be too reliant on tourism, which can fall as rapidly as it rises….
But in many places where sites are at risk, government either does not operate at all, or functions only in the interest of a kleptocratic elite. In some such places, so-called non-state players (from warlords to private firms to religious leaders) are about the only things that really function at all…
One of the biggest global challenges to conservation, says the WMF’s president, Bonnie Burnham, is that national agencies which control precious places (culture ministries, for example) often have no say over what goes on—in terms of development, transport or sanitation—in the surrounding areas. That is one of the obstacles to conserving Inca sites in Peru…
As part of her agency’s [UNESCO] effort to stop the traffic in stolen art, Ms Bokova [UNESCO’s director-general]has started a dialogue—a constructive one, she says—with commercial auction houses. Perhaps she should also be talking more to tour operators, and even darker forces, from the conservationists’ viewpoint, like road-builders and mining companies.
Excerpts, The Heritage Debate: Living Treasure, Economist, July 14, 2012, at 73