Since 2000, year of the inscription of the Island of Saint-Louis on the World Heritage List, conservation activities have been carried out with the support of France under the France-UNESCO Convention for Heritage and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This support comprises the provision of French expertise to the World Heritage Centre, as well as decentralised cooperation between the town of Saint-Louis (Senegal) and the urban community of metropolitan Lille (France), in order to strengthen conservation and presentation efforts for the site.
At the time of its inscription, the property had no appropriate management mechanism to deal with the preoccupying state of the built heritage. In order to respond to this need, several technical assistance and capacity-building operations were undertaken and a site manager was trained in the framework of the Africa 2009 Programme. The elaboration of a Conservation and Presentation Plan for the town, under the authority of the Senegalese Directorate for Cultural Heritage, was launched within the framework of the France-UNESCO Convention. In addition, the services of a French heritage architect were made available to the Cultural Heritage Directorate of Senegal, to finalise the Conservation Plan and follow up on progress achieved on the buildings within the listed perimeter, in coordination with the technical services of the town. The French authorities are also supporting the creation of a ‘heritage house’ that will serve as an information centre and coordination structure, and will house an apprentice school for architectural restoration and branches of the conservation professions.
Parallel to conservation and presentation activities, the Island of Saint-Louis has been retained as one of the pilot properties for the French intersectorial project for poverty alleviation through the optimisation and management of cultural resources. Seed money has been provided, enabling the implementation of restoration operations and the improvement of dwellings.
A UNESCO mission comprising French and World Heritage Centre experts was sent to the Island of Saint-Louis, from 26 March to 3 April 2004, to evaluate the built heritage inscribed on the World Heritage List and propose appropriate measures for the management of the property to the governing authorities. The mission report submitted to the World Heritage Centre indicated the following:
a) The urban property is threatened and the Faidherbe Bridge, linking the town to the listed ensemble, is in a serious state of degradation. Interventions by the municipality likely to alter the aspect of this landscape with unsuitable constructions, opaque fences or vegetal barriers implanted with no prior analysis of the possible visual impact or regard for the harmony and the continuity of the areas were noted;
b) About 60 public and private buildings are today seriously threatened with collapse. This danger is characterised by the dilapidated state of all of the supporting masonry components, including the balconies, and the lack of watertightness of the covering elements (terraces and roofs). The presumed causes of this threatening situation are diverse: lack of maintenance by the owners, illegal occupation, deliberate abandon or with speculative intention. Many of these endangered houses are either inhabited by squatter families, or are unoccupied through choice and control of an identified owner, or are in a state of ruin. The mission also stressed that these buildings presented an imminent danger, and occupying families risked being the primary victims of the inevitable collapse of the constructions - a recent collapse had caused the death of a child, buried in the rubble. Expertise and concertations have stressed the need for urgent intervention by the competent responsible services, in order to consolidate the buildings threatened with ruin and protect the occupants from imminent danger.
The mission report further stressed the urgent need for the preservation and presentation of the old buildings, to halt the phenomenon of their degradation and demolition that encouraged:
i) real estate speculation and the eviction of the poorest inhabitants;
ii) local market construction trend (promoters and entrepreneurs) towards new constructions rather than the restoration of existing buildings;
iii) abandon of the Island by the middle classes in favour of the outskirts of the town;
iv) construction of architecturally heteroclite buildings, in total contradiction with the historic heritage that irremediably distorts the historic coherence of the urban site.
In conclusion, despite efforts made thanks to support from France, the integrity of the property remains gravely threatened and its state of degradation is cause for serious concern. Too often architectural witnesses to the past disappear through demolition and numerous unauthorised or poorly supervised « restoration » projects. New public or private buildings, authorised or not, are not in harmony with the exceptional urban ensemble (scale, type, style) and occult the subsisting elements. In January 2004, the Director of the World Heritage Centre sent a letter to the Ministry of Culture and Listed Heritage of Senegal expressing concern.
The Government of Belgium (Walloon Region, City of Liège) also supports the conservation activities in Saint-Louis and its assistance has in particular enabled the restoration of the old Territorial Assembly that will house the future Regional Council.
UNESCO made a proposal to the Senegalese authorities to organise, jointly with the municipal authorities, an event in Paris convening the different partners and international funding institutions involved, to encourage the different parties to work together towards a common goal to safeguard this World Heritage property. It should also be noted that in October 2004, a joint expertise and evaluation mission comprising representatives of UNESCO, France, and the urban community of Metropolitan Lille, again went to the Island of Saint-Louis to oversee the installation of the inventory database and the site plan carried out in the framework of the decentralised cooperation Saint-Louis–Metropolitan Lille Urban Community, by the Architectural School of Lille (France).