Heritage has been absent from the mainstream sustainable development debate despite its crucial importance to societies and the wide acknowledgment of its great potential to contribute to social, economic and environmental goals. World Heritage may provide a platform to develop and test new approaches that demonstrate the relevance of heritage for sustainable development, with a view to its integration in the UN post-2015 development agenda.
The Contribution of World Heritage to Sustainable Development
Outside the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) N. 7, on environmental sustainability, which addresses in part the need to protect biodiversity and natural resources, the MDGs adopted by the international community in 2000 made no specific reference to heritage or even to culture in general. Yet, the contribution of heritage to a sustainable human development is major.
Certainly, the protection of exceptional heritage properties cherished by people all over the world – such as great natural sceneries and landmark monuments – can be considered as an intrinsic contribution to human wellbeing. It would be hard to imagine our countries, cities and landscapes without the familiar remnants of our past, a witness to continuity through the passing of time, and the presence of nature, to inspire us with a profound sense of wonder and joy.
But in addition to its intrinsic value for present and future generations, World Heritage – and heritage in general – can make also an important instrumental contribution to sustainable development across its various dimensions.
Through a variety of goods and services and as a storehouse of knowledge, a well-protected World Heritage property may contribute directly to alleviating poverty and inequalities by providing basic goods and services, such as security and health, through shelter, access to clean air, water, food and other key resources.
Preserving natural resources, including outstanding sites containing some of the richest combinations of terrestrial and marine biodiversity, is obviously a fundamental contribution to environmental sustainability. Most of these sites, on the other hand, have developed over time through mutual adaptation between humans and the environment, and thus demonstrate how, rather than existing in separate and parallel realms, biological and cultural diversities interact with and affect one another in complex ways in a sort of co-evolutionary process.
Very often, World Heritage is also an important asset for economic development, by attracting investments and ensuring green, locally-based, stable and decent jobs, only some of which may be related to tourism. Activities associated to the stewardship of cultural and natural heritage, indeed, are local by definition (i.e. cannot be de-localised) and green “by design” since they embody an intrinsically more sustainable pattern of land use, consumption and production, developed over centuries if not millennia of slow adaptation between the communities and their environment. This is true for natural protected areas rich in biodiversity, of course, but also for cultural landscapes and historic cities.
World Heritage, of course, is also essential to the spiritual wellbeing of people for its powerful symbolic and aesthetic dimensions. The acknowledgment and conservation of the diversity of the cultural and natural heritage, fair access to it and the equitable sharing of the benefits deriving from its use, enhance the feeling of place and belonging, mutual respect for others and a sense of purpose and ability to maintain a common good, which contribute to the social cohesion of a community as well as to individual and collective freedom of choice and action. The ability to access, enjoy and care for one’s heritage is essential for what the Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen calls the “capability of individuals to live and to be what they choose”, that is a fundamental component of human development.
A well-maintained heritage is also very important in addressing risks related to natural and human-made disasters. Experience has shown how the degradation of natural resources, neglected rural areas, urban sprawl and poorly engineered new constructions increase the vulnerability of communities to disaster risks, especially in poorer countries. On the other hand, a well-conserved natural and historic environment, based on traditional knowledge and skills, considerably reduces underlying disaster risks’ factors, strengthens the resilience of communities and saves lives.
At times of crisis, moreover, access to and care for the heritage may help vulnerable people recover a sense of continuity, dignity and empowerment. In conflict and post-conflict situations, in particular, the acknowledgment and conservation of heritage, based on shared values and interests, may foster mutual recognition, tolerance and respect among different communities, which is a precondition for a society’s peaceful development.
All of the above concerned potential positive contributions that an appropriate WH conservation and management could make to sustainable development.
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