Getting to Sustainability – Lessons from Yangon

By Donovan Rypkema, President, Heritage Strategies International
There are some who define “sustainability” very narrowly – “If you get a gold sticker because you use low wattage lightbulbs and waterless toilets, you’re sustainable.” The international framework for sustainability is much more comprehensive and includes three components – economic responsibility, environmental responsibility, and social responsibility. This is usually represented graphically as a Venn Diagram.
ven diagram
More recently some have approached sustainable development has having four elements, adding “culture” to the other three. Late last year the European Commission issued the report Culture Heritage Counts for Europe and used this depiction:
4 way ven diagram
The Emirate of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates – a country that is committed to setting an international example of sustainable development – as also approached the concept more broadly through their planning approach called Estidama
Hopefully once countries start formally adopting the new Sustainable Development Goals, which for the first time include cultural heritage as a target, this broader perspective will be used more frequently.
But for any sustainable development approach to work there is one prerequisite – a legal framework to allow it to happen. And that’s the challenge of Yangon.
In recent years Myanmar (formally Burma) has been emerging from decades of international isolation as the military government is gradually yielding its power to a democratically elected civilian parliament. The largest city in the country – Yangon (formerly Rangoon) has the largest collection of 19th and early 20th century colonial buildings in Asia. While they are deteriorating, hundreds of blocks and thousands of buildings are still in place. At one point the city was the center of the British Empire in the region and today could redefine its international position as one of the world’s great historic cities. And there is plenty of money flowing into Yangon today to fund that evolution.
Except for one problem – there isn’t the legal framework for property ownership to make that happen. There is not yet a law that protects the heritage buildings, so dozens of potentially listed buildings disappear every month. But lots of countries have inadequate protection of their historic resources. However, in Myanmar the problem is much more basic.
When the country became independent in 1948 there was a common law framework inherited from the British that largely worked and in some cases built upon. In 1960 the nominally socialist military government passed a rent control ordinance and two years later nationalized all private property then reallocated a partial interest to others. Subsequent legislation granted what are basically possessory rights to any tenant who occupies the property for 12 years. Today most of the land in the country is owned by the government, individuals and companies own buildings, and tenants “own” the right to occupy. Sort of like a condominium, but with no condominium law, and with “ownership” achieved by simply being there rather than purchasing a legal interest.
The rent that the “landlord” receives on the space is next to nothing, often $1 per year or less. This is clearly inadequate to make an investment to improve the property. But tenants have neither the motivation to make building improvements (since their space but not the building is owned by them) nor often the money to make the most basic of repairs. And if they choose to pool their money and fix the roof, for example? The landlord has the right to deny that investment since it is his building. That is exactly what frequently happens, with the owner hoping the property becomes completely uninhabitable, everyone moves out, and he can sell it to a developer to demolish and build a larger structure.
On top of all of this, there is little transparency in the ownership system, a working cadastre system (the chain of title, boundaries, ownership limitations, deed registration etc.) isn’t yet fully operable and many transactions go purposely unrecorded, and a new parliament with 1000 priority agenda items to address. Both Buddhist and Islamic property interests add a level of complexity. And owners prior to nationalization are resurfacing asking for repatriation of their ownership rights.
There is a program trying to help the Burmese address these land ownership legal issues. The Pyoe Pin Programme established by the British Council and receiving support from SIDA (Swedish International Development Agency) DANIDA (the Danish International Development Agency) is beginning by at least defining the scope and complexity of the problem. They have also undertaken a pilot study of eight heritage buildings in Yangon’s center city to explore solutions.
But in the meantime, what could be one of the greatest collection of heritage resources in the world is being chipped away almost daily. And that won’t stop until there is a workable legal system for property ownership.
This US/ICOMOS Knowledge Center is supposed to be about Heritage Buildings as Sustainable Development, not a law journal article by a non-lawyer. But the big lesson from Yangon is this: sustainable development by any definition will remain at best an abstract concept if there is not the legal framework to make it happen.

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