Nature & Culture: An idea whose time has come

Most great ideas that come along in society, bubble up under the surface, independently and in multiple locations, until suddenly there is a critical mass of people and organizations talking about the same thing.  That is what has happened over the past couple of years with the idea that natural and cultural heritage should be recognized, understood and managed together.   Not only in tandem, but as an indivisible whole.
Looking at the World Heritage List, it is clear that natural and cultural are not always conceived as an integrated whole: there are currently 745 (77%) cultural, 188 natural (20%) and 29 (3%) mixed sites inscribed on the World Heritage List (2014).  The joint IUCN – ICOMOS project, Connecting Practice, was an effort to begin to address the lack of cohesive approach between the two sides of the same coin in the IUCN and ISOMOS approaches to considering nature and culture under the World Heritage Convention.  In the video interview at right, Leticia Leitao, discusses the project, phases 1 and the current effort, and its value in the World Heritage context.  She cites the importance of the integration of natural and cultural heritage teams during site review, as well as the current effort to integrate both the review and onsite management of natural and cultural resources.  The final report for phase 1 of the project, published in 2015, details the process and results of team integration and its implementation in three cases in Mongolia, Ethiopia and Mexico (see report download at right).
Following on the heels of the publication of the final report in 2015, this year’s activities are bringing the conversation to a variety of audiences. The holy grail of the continuing conversation will be at the IUCN (International Union of Nature Conservation) World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, September 1 through the 10th, where Connecting Practice will have a featured presentation.  Held every four years, the Congress brings together several thousand leaders and decision-makers from government, civil society, indigenous peoples, business, and academia, with the goal of conserving the environment and enabling sustainable development.
This year, ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) has partnered with IUCN to create a “journey,” a series of coordinated sessions, that explores the theme of the linkages between natural and cultural heritage conservation.  The journey encompasses 46 sessions spanning the initial period of the conference, from September 1st through the 5th.  For more details on the Nature – Culture journey and a full list of sessions, click on the PDF to the right.
Leading up to the IUCN conference, there have been several other nature – culture events held this year.  These include two international conferences, one in Paris and one in Prague.  In April, a day-long conference Patrimoines Naturels et Culturels – Enjeux et Synergies, co-sponsored by Aten and Les Grands Sites de France, focused on the common challenge of natural and cultural site managers in France: to preserve and ensure sustainable management of heritage under strong external pressures, make this heritage available to the public, and mobilize residents and other stakeholders around the long-term challenges.
A second Nature – Culture conference was held in Prague, Czech Republic, from May 16 through the 19th.  Bringing together  academics, practitioners and NGO staff from 20 countries, the four-day conference focused on four themes of the nature-culture debate:

  1. Communities in the aftermath of human- or natural-disturbances:  In the light of increasing disturbance, both human and natural, the need to understand degradation and appropriate responses is more important than ever. Climate change, resource extraction, war, strife, and migrations all leave significant scars both on people and their landscape. Papers included discussions of the 1963 “Green Line” in Cyprus; the long-term effects of the 551CE tsunami at Acre, Israel; fifty years of conflict and the result of peace on heritage in Columbia; heritage conservation after the 2015 earthquake in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal; the role of gardens in healing trauma; the effect on natural ecologies of the depopulation of areas of Central Europe after World War II; and the 200-2008 conflict in Kosovo, among others.
  2. Large landscapes: Are nature and culture indivisible?  Cultural landscape management may need to confront the same ambivalence which William Cronon addresses in his seminal essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.”  A series of papers addressed the issues of large landscapes including the interstices of rural and urban landscapes; the preservation of field structures, including terraced paddy fields, and the dating of medieval pluzina field boundaries; the affect of nature on people’s perception of built heritage; and protection designations for natural and cultural heritage in large landscapes; the impacts of intrusions such as wind turbines on natural and cultural landscapes; the concepts of nature and culture within UNESCO; and natural and cultural heritage in rural protected landscapes, among others.
  3. The role of authenticity: When does heritage become a parody of itself?  Documenting heritage can be difficult when there are few or no documentary records remaining.  Two papers dealt with alternatives to traditional documentation: the role of collaborative historical archaeology in documenting authenticity;  the use of written descriptions for identifying sites; and the concepts of “reverse design.”  Museums, living heritage villages, archaeological sites – these are all dependent on an interaction between the site and the visitor. Interpretation of the layers of heritage, and clarity about what is authentic and what is not guides the visitor’s experience and engagement with history.  Several papers dealt with this concept of authenticity and truthfulness, and in Cumalikizik Village, Turkey, the interaction of popularity, movie sets and other media use of the site on its authenticity; the role of heritage marketing; digital representations; and the role of urban archaeological sites in the context of contemporary cities, among others.
  4. The role of traditional and indigenous knowledge in heritage and nature conservation:  Communities and their associated lands are created and shaped in novel and significant ways by those who inhabit them. Embedded in local knowledge are the tangible and intangible features that govern a culture’s understanding of the world including relationships to landforms, water, plant and animal species, language, music and customs. Papers included participatory approaches to safeguarding cultural knowledge; intellectual property law as it relates to traditional cultural heritage; and specialized culinary knowledge, among others.

For more information about the presentation, the conference book of abstracts can be downloaded to the right.
Finally, coinciding with the release of the final report on “Connecting Practice,” the April 2015 edition of World Heritage, UNESCO’s comprehensive magazine, is dedicated to the Nature – Culture conversation.  Presenting a series of cases and study sites, the central article examines the nature-culture linkages in the World Heritage convention, concluding that it is “time has come to …reassert the contribution of World Heritage to the effective and equitable protection of cultural and biological diversity.”  In a world where “150 to 200 species are lost every day, and one language dies out every two weeks,” the integration of natural and cultural protection is key to reversing the decline of the world’s culture- and eco-systems.

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For additional information, see:
IUCN Connecting Practice webpage
ICOMOS Connecting Practice webpage
Summary of the conference “Naturally Cultural or Culturally Natural,” April 4, 2014

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