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How the World Heritage Convention contributes to sustainable development

Categories 40th Anniversary

The aim of the World Heritage Convention is the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value. The text of the Convention, adopted in 1972, does not make any specific mention of the term “sustainable development” but it does carry the spirit and promise of sustainability in its insistence that culture and nature form a single, closed continuum of the planet’s resources, the integrated stewardship of which is essential to successful long-term sustainable development – and indeed to the future of life on the Earth as we know it.

This idea is enshrined in particular in Articles 4 and 5 of the Convention, recognizing that States Parties have the duty “of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations (emphasis added) of the cultural and natural heritage”, as well as “to adopt a general policy which aims to give the cultural and natural heritage a function in the life of the community and to integrate the protection of that heritage into comprehensive planning programmes”. In this respect, the scope of action of the Convention seems to go beyond the sites included in its List of World Heritage properties, to encompass national heritage policies and wider development strategies.

By recognising the equal value of the world’s cultural and natural heritage, in all its diversity, and by encouraging and promoting international cooperation for its conservation, the 1972 Convention is inherently contributing to the building of mutual understanding, dialogue and solidarity among States and communities, which are the preconditions for sustainable development and peace.

In practice

As an attribute of natural and cultural diversity, World Heritage plays a fundamental role in fostering sustainable development and as a source of our wellbeing.

Through a variety of goods and services and as a storehouse of knowledge, a well-protected World Heritage property contributes directly to providing basic goods, security and health, through access to clean air, water, food and other key resources as well as by attracting investments and ensuring green, locally-based, stable and decent jobs, only some of which may be related to tourism. Most activities associated to the stewardship of cultural and natural heritage, indeed, are green “by design” since they embody an intrinsically more sustainable pattern of land use, consumption and production, developed over centuries if not millennia of slow adaptation. This is true for natural protected areas rich in biodiversity, of course, but also for cultural landscapes and historic cities.

Well-maintained heritage is also very important in addressing risks related to natural and human-made disasters. Experience has shown how the degradation of natural resources, neglected rural areas, urban sprawl and poorly engineered new constructions increase the vulnerability of communities to disaster risks, especially in poorer countries. On the other hand, a well-conserved natural and historic environment considerably reduces underlying disaster risks’ factors, strengthens the resilience of communities and saves lives.

World Heritage is also essential to the spiritual wellbeing of people for its powerful symbolic and aesthetic dimensions. The conservation of the diversity of the cultural and natural heritage, fair access to it and the equitable sharing of the benefits deriving from its use, enhance the feeling of place and belonging, mutual respect for others and a sense of purpose and ability to provide for children, which contribute to the social cohesion of the community as well as to individual and collective freedom of choice and action.

For all of these reasons, World Heritage – and heritage in general - is crucial to sustainable development, the physical and spiritual well-being of communities and to the building of mutual understanding and peace.

Policies that work

Over the decades, the link between World Heritage protection and sustainable development has been progressively reflected in the “Operational Guidelines for the implementation of the Convention”, which are periodically revised, and affirmed in some seminal policy documents.

The notion of sustainability entered the Operational Guidelines in 1994, with reference to the “sustainable use” of cultural landscapes, then introduced for the first time as a new category of heritage properties. At its 26th Session (Budapest, 2002), the World Heritage Committee adopted the so-called “Budapest Declaration”, which stressed the need to “ensure an appropriate and equitable balance between conservation, sustainability and development, so that World Heritage properties can be protected through appropriate activities contributing to the social and economic development and the quality of life of our communities”. In 2005, the notion of sustainable development was taken into account in the introductory part of the Operational Guidelines, which notes that “The protection and conservation of the natural and cultural heritage are a significant contribution to sustainable development” (paragraph 6). The Operational Guidelines further recognise (paragraph 119) that World Heritage properties “may support a variety of on-going and proposed uses that are ecologically and culturally sustainable”. At its 31st Session (Christchurch 2007), furthermore, the World Heritage Committee decided to add “Communities” to the previous four strategic objectives, “to enhance the role of communities in the implementation of the World Heritage Convention” (Decision 31 COM 13B).

More recently, the issue of sustainable development has acquired increasing importance within World Heritage policy-making.

At its 35th Session (Paris, 2011), the World Heritage Committee made a number of additions to the Operational Guidelines which refer to sustainable development, notably in paragraphs 112, 119, 132, as well as in Annex 5, points 4.b and 5.e. These amendments are aimed on one hand at ensuring that any use of World Heritage properties be sustainable with respect to the imperative of maintaining their Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), and on the other hand to affirm the idea that management systems of World Heritage properties should “integrate sustainable development principles”. Various paragraphs of the Operational Guidelines, moreover, call for a full participatory approach in the identification, protection and management of World Heritage properties (e.g. paragraphs 64, 111 and 123).

The recent “Strategic Action Plan for the Implementation of the Convention, 2012-2022”, adopted by the 18th General Assembly (Paris, 2011), also integrates a concern for sustainable development, notably in its “Vision for 2022”, which calls for the World Heritage Convention to “contribute to the sustainable development of the world’s communities and cultures”, as well as through its Goal N.3 which reads: “Heritage protection and conservation considers present and future environmental, societal and economic needs”, which is to be achieved particularly through “connecting conservation to communities”. These topics are being also increasingly addressed within capacity-building initiatives associated to World Heritage, as demonstrated, by way of example, by the recent establishment within a UNESCO Category 2 Centre in Turin (Italy) of a Master Course on the Economics of Heritage Conservation in partnership with the World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies of the Convention.

Finally, the official theme for the celebrations of the Convention’s 40th anniversary, in 2012, is “World Heritage and Sustainable Development: the Role of Communities”. A number of meetings and events focused on this theme are scheduled over this year, starting from the Consultative Meeting which has just taken place at Ouro Preto, Brazil (6-8 February 2012), at the request of the World Heritage Committee. These initiatives will result in new ideas and recommendations that will be considered by the World Heritage Committee at its 36th Session (St. Petersburg, June/July 2012) as well as at the closing event of the Anniversary, foreseen on 6-8 November in Kyoto, Japan.

Challenges and future perspectives

Despite the inherent link between World Heritage conservation and sustainable development, there is general agreement that the great potential of World Heritage is still not sufficiently harnessed for contributing to socio-economic development and, particularly in developing regions.

It is also fair to say that, beyond statements of principle, the current Operational Guidelines and other existing policy texts do not provide sufficient practical orientation to assist those in charge of World Heritage properties to fully integrate a sustainable development perspective in the implementation of the Convention. Throughout its key processes (i.e. nomination, evaluation, monitoring, international assistance), the Convention continues to focus primarily on maintaining the heritage value of World Heritage properties (i.e. its Outstanding Universal Value), without necessarily considering the possible implications in respect of their wider social, economic and environmental context, except when these implications engender a risk for the heritage.

On the other hand, the experience gathered in the daily implementation of the World Heritage Convention (notably in state-of-conservation reporting) shows that conflicts between conservation and development objectives are very common, including with proposed developments that, in principle, would appear to strengthen sustainability (e.g. wind-farms, adaptive re-use of historic buildings for commercial use, etc.). Conversely, a number of opportunities for promoting sustainable development through the conservation of World Heritage properties, for example through the promotion of local employment  or a stronger inclusion of communities in local decision-making processes, may exist at certain sites, but are not currently exploited since this is not explicitly required by the policies of the Convention.

There is considerable potential for integrating sustainable development into the policies and processes of the World Heritage Convention, recognized by the World Heritage Committee at its 34th session in Brasilia in 2010, and by building on the results of other events such as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) should both ensure that the potential of World Heritage to contribute to sustainable develop is fully harnessed, and that World Heritage conservation strategies are in line with sustainable development goals.

To make the most of the relationship between heritage and sustainable development, the World Heritage community should consider that there is a need for further studies and research to better understand the dynamic relation between heritage conservation and the various dimensions of sustainable development.

Also, there are inextricable links between the natural and cultural, tangible and intangible dimensions of heritage as well as the continuum between heritage and creativity, which suggests that ways to bring together more closely the three related UNESCO Conventions (1972, 2003 and 2005) should be explored.  

The realization that sustainable development is a goal that, almost by definition, acquires its meaning at a scale which is often much larger than that of a WH property, suggesting that World Heritage planning and management needs to be more integrated in territorial and regional strategies.

Sustainable development, almost by definition, is on a scale that goes well beyond the scope of a World Heritage site, so that management and planning needs must be more integrated in territorial and regional strategies – and so the results and repercussions of these actions reflect upon our larger communities and eventually our global community as a whole.