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5 May 2017 – African World Heritage Day

Tuesday, 2 May 2017
access_time 5 min read
Irina Bokova and Forest Whitaker with schoolchildren in Yei (South Sudan), 24 June 2014. © UNESCO

“On this International Day, I call upon all African stakeholders, States, civil society and local communities to assume the protection of the unparalleled richness of Africa’s heritage.”

“Supporting local communities – and especially young people – to promote and develop the abundant cultural and natural resources means paving the way for long-term, inclusive and socially cohesive development.”

Excerpts from the official Message by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO

Proclaimed by the 38th session of the General Conference of UNESCO (November 2015), African World Heritage Day is an opportunity for people around the world, and particularly Africans, to celebrate the Continent’s irreplaceable cultural and natural heritage.

This International Day aims to increase global awareness of African heritage and to mobilize enhanced cooperation for its safeguarding. For the first edition of African World Heritage Day in 2016, the Government of South Africa hosted the flagship events. To mark the second edition of African World Heritage Day, a wide range of events and activities will be organized in Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia and other countries within and beyond Africa. These activities will address diverse aspects of World Heritage, with a special focus on the active involvement of young people, women and local communities.

The second edition of African World Heritage Day will be marked by a series of flagship events organized by the Government of Burkina Faso, in collaboration with the African World Heritage Fund, including a Francophone youth forum and a seminar devoted to the theme of training young heritage practitioners in Africa near the Loropéni World Heritage site (Burkina Faso). These events will culminate on 5 May with a celebration of the International Day in the presence of high-level representatives of the Government of Burkina Faso and UNESCO.

Challenges and Development opportunities

African World Heritage Day is the ideal time to raise awareness among the general public about the urgent need to protect African heritage. Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, declared that “today more than 23 African sites are on the List of World Heritage in Danger (…); all are threatened and are at risk of disappearing if we do not act quickly. We each have a role to play.”

Africa, the cradle of humanity, remains underrepresented on the World Heritage List with only 131 sites (12%, including 90 sites in sub-Saharan Africa and 41 sites in North Africa) (Click here for more statistics). Yet the 23 African sites inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger account for 42% of all sites on the List. Heritage protection on the African continent faces numerous challenges such as armed conflict, terrorism, poaching and illicit trafficking, global warming and natural disasters, uncontrolled urban expansion, unregulated tourism, and mining and oil exploration.

In response to this situation, the Ngorongoro Declaration, which resulted from the first major international conference on African World Heritage (June 2016, Tanzania), affirms that sustainable development can ensure that appropriate efforts are deployed to protect endangered resources in Africa, making the safeguarding of heritage a driver for sustainable development. The Declaration also calls on "African States Parties to promote the role that women and youth play in the conservation and management of cultural and natural heritage".

Success Stories

In light of the many challenges faced by the African continent, it is crucial to reinforce the capacities of Africa’s youth and local communities in the field of heritage in order to boost poverty reduction and social cohesion. The Africa Unit of the World Heritage Centre, in close cooperation with their strategic partners (ICOMOS, IUCN, ICCROM, AWHF, CHDA, EPA), has launched two programmes to address these needs: ‘World Heritage in the curricula of African universities’ and ‘The effective involvement of local communities in the management of cultural heritage’.

Two success stories demonstrate the progress achieved in the areas of education and local-community involvement.

Ranger and care worker of a baby gorilla © UNESCO/ Yvette Kaboza

In Virunga National Park (DRC) substantial efforts have been made in recent years through the implementation of the Virunga Alliance, a new private-public partnership management model. This innovative and environmentally sound approach aims to balance conservation and development through four main sectors: hydropower, the agro-industry, fisheries and tourism. This initiative has improved the living conditions of the communities around the site while contributing to its conservation in a sustainable manner. The regained control of the park has resulted in an enhanced state of conservation and an increase in patrol coverage. The joint efforts have led to an increase of mountain gorillas and enhanced protection of their habitats.

Plastering by local communities  © CRA-TERRE/ Thierry Joffroy

The rehabilitation of World Heritage sites in Timbuktu (Mali) highlights the unprecedented integration of heritage conservation into peacebuilding efforts. The success of this ongoing project is due in large part to the mobilization of local communities that are leading all reconstruction operations. These communities have preserved their traditional knowledge dating back many centuries, which made it possible to reconstruct the 14 mausoleums of saints and rehabilitate the mosques and libraries safeguarding ancient manuscripts. Their determination and commitment constitute a bold response to all forms of extremism. This cooperation has demonstrated the unifying potential of heritage and the critical role of heritage conservation in restoring and maintaining security and peace in times of crisis. In this regard, the results achieved in Mali are historic. The emphasis on culture heritage is essential for national reconciliation efforts. The international attention on Mali’s heritage has also contributed to the successful outcome in 2016 of the International Criminal Court’s first trial on the wilful destruction of cultural heritage.