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Dialogue between Fatemah Alzelzela & Alfred Brownell

50 Minds for the Next 50. Safeguarding Heritage against Climate Crisis Session

Fatemah Alzelzela

Youth climate leader and founder of the Eco Star project

Alfred Brownell

Environmental Activist and Lawyer

Vision for the Next 50

In the Next 50… Sufficient investment is made in research, studies, technologies and sustainability. Actors of heritage protection around the world, who hold the key to achieving net zero, are financially empowered.

In the Next 50… Indigenous communities are recognized as the first responders to the climate crisis. Their unique form of resilience - “community resilience” - inspires new and innovative practices to mitigate the climate crisis.


The dialogue between Fatemah Alzelzela and Alfred Brownell centred around communities and vulnerabilities. Fatemah and Alfred agreed that the natural phenomena have severely impacted heritage. This negative impact is often felt by those communities who have very limited carbon footprint and often live in harmony with nature. Alfred emphasised the power of indigenous communities to serve as custodians of heritage. Fatemah has warned that heritage properties are already experiencing serious physical and biological structural damage, owing to their exposure to accelerated weathering processes. Alfred stressed the importance of global platforms to learn from the in-built resilience mechanism of indigenous cultures, convened by international organisations such as UNESCO.


I would like to thank you all for having us here today. I apologise for my voice. We are experiencing intense dust storms due to climate change reasons. You cannot even breathe outside - which is not natural.

I would like to know your general opinion about these events and how they affect the community and the cultural heritage. How do natural phenomenons such as heavy rains, floods and dust storms affect the surrounding environments in your opinion?

It is such an honour to be here and a privilege to discuss a future issue which concerns young people, even if it is adults who have created this mess. It is sadly our children who are going to clean it up.

I will focus my answer on the community that I have worked with - indigenous people. From Africa to South America to South-East Asia and Australia, indigenous people occupy more than 20% of the land space across the globe.

Currently most of the pristine areas of land, particularly forest landscapes, are being managed and occupied by indigenous people. So when the phenomena of climate change occurs - like floods, droughts, sinkhole erosion - indigenous people are the first in line to be affected. It affects their livelihood, their economic subsistence, their health, their wellbeing, their culture, their history. All of this is washed away. So you start to see a situation where climate crises such as floods wash away their fields, their crops, their cattle, they lose all of this. They lose their homes and they become extremely vulnerable.

So local communities are the first in line to face the impact of the climate crisis - even though they are not the cause of it. This presents serious ethical questions. World Heritage must protect the most vulnerable population, who has preserved our culture, landscape, history, and traditions. It is now time to rethink how to preserve those regions on policy and legal dimensions, so that the least vulnerable will be offered protection. So that when the floods and the droughts and the hurricanes and the wildfires start impacting these communities, there is a legal framework to protect them.

I appreciate how you understand and advocate for the local community.

What we don’t often talk about is the idea of community resilience in reference to heritage management.

All across the world, we have communities and indigenous persons impacted by the climate crisis. They are what I call the ‘Firewalls.’ They are also the precursor to what is going to happen in the rest of the country and the world.

At the same time, they are the first responders before the government or the international community steps in. They have in-built resilience that we rarely recognise. For example, their social assets to support each other, to ensure the impact is minimised, to find a way to provide without financial resources and services. Before the first aid comes in, who is providing the room, the food, the finances, the care, the medical attention, the psychological support? It comes from those indigenous communities.

International organisations rarely pay attention to that. UNESCO should start looking into the enduring indigenous community resilience that continues to respond to the climate crisis. This matters to heritage because such resilience, adaptation and mitigation measures are built within those communities and their histories. If we don’t pay attention to that, and we don’t innovate, the rest of the world is going to lose all of that knowledge, all of that culture.

So, from a young person to the older generation that has caused extensive environmental damage - how can we pass on what our ancestors have given us to the next generations?

Cultural heritage is extremely exposed to disastrous effects of natural causes, related to climate change. This includes heavy rains, floods, dust storms. It must be taken into consideration that the World Heritage is subjected to interaction with their surrounding environments and weathering processes. It is the main challenge of our time. We are moving so fast with greenhouse gases and emissions, pollution, but moving so slow with adopting solutions.

Unfortunately, we don’t have technologies, investments and economies to solve this. The majority of governments around the world have agreed that it is almost impossible to overcome climate change completely. Because it means that we have to change everything that we are doing right now, and immediately. Net-zero and adaptation to climate change is more realistic.

Climate change has a great impact on cultural heritage sites. They are affected by the degradation of structural mechanisms, both physically and biologically. For example, the city of Venice is sinking, vanishing because of the rising sea level. It breaks my heart to say it's happening in many other countries around the world, including my own country, Kuwait.

So to answer your question - what we need is more investment in research, technologies and sustainability. We must financially empower those who work on conservation around the world to protect the World Heritage sites all around the world.

You know, that is so significant.

We’ve heard that the world is at the tipping point for the climate crisis. We’ve heard that there's mass extinction because of the climate crisis. What we have not heard people talking about is the mass extinction of culture - the mass extinction of tradition, the mass extinction of religions because of the climate crisis. We have a crisis of history, a crisis of culture, a crisis of heritage in all regions. We are at a crisis of heritage. I think the world needs to have that conversation.

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Explore other sessions

Five dialogue sessions covering five themes take place in 2022, each joined by thinkers in paired dialogue from diverse regions. The interdisciplinary dialogues inspire new visions for the next 50 years of World Heritage.

Safeguarding Heritage against Climate Crisis
Imagining Heritage in the Digital Dimension
Heritage in the post-COVID World
Sustainable Tourism & Sustainable Heritage
Towards a Balanced Representation of World Heritage Sites