Underwater Cultural Heritage in the Pacific

Mr Elia Nakoro with Dr Hans van Tilburg at the Honolulu UCH Conference (c)UNESCO/NOAA

Marine and Coastal Sites Hold Historical and Cultural Information

Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH), undisturbed in situ, is often better preserved than land-based cultural heritage, holding invaluable information for historians, archaeologists, and scientists to reconstruct past cultures.  UCH are also valuable for tourism, provided the tourism is soundly managed from an environmental protection and heritage safeguarding perspective.

The Convention for the Protection of UCH (2001)

The UCH Convention establishes a protection regime for UCH by maritime zone determined by UNCLOS and provides a comprehensive coverage of UCH regardless of its location, greatly extending the legal protection of UCH.  The UCH Convention recognises the right of the coastal states to prohibit or permit activities directed to UCH in their EEZ and continental shelf.  The UCH Convention does not regulate the ownership of UCH.  Given the responsibility entrusted to coastal states, especially in the developing world, the UCH Convention emphasises the importance of UCH-related capacity building, technology transfer and information sharing, as well as awareness raising of the significance of UCH.

By joining the UCH Convention, countries can (i) achieve UCH protection at the same level as for land-based cultural heritage, (ii) protect UCH from looting and commercial exploitation for trade or speculation, (iii) ensure comprehensive protection of UCH through a state cooperation system. By joining the UCH Convention, Parties pledge to protect UCH against looting and commercial exploitation and to apply the provisions of the UCH Convention and the Rules in its Annex as internationally recognised guidelines for UCH protection. In 2018, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) became the first state party from the Pacific. 

The Pacific UCH Programme

The Pacific UCH Programme was launched at The first regional workshop on the Pacific underwater cultural heritage held in Solomon Islands in 2009. UNESCO publication "Underwater Cultural Heritage in Oceania" (2010) presents an overview of UCH in the Pacific spanning the history from the Stone Age to the Atomic Era, ranging from traditional fish weirs belonging to indigenous community, ships of explorers, and WW- related wrecks and aircraft.  

The wealth of Pacific UCH reflects the strong connection of Pacific community to its ocean, and the specificity of Pacific UCH that integrates the tangible remains and intangible knowledge. The numerous fish weirs across the Pacific islands are important living UCH uniquely belonging to the Pacific peoples. The Pacific community has a role to play in redressing the prevailing misunderstanding of UCH that has a narrow focus on shipwrecks, marginalizing the indigenous UCH in the region.

UNESCO assists Pacific SIDS to build capacity through workshops and the academic programmes at the University of Guam which became a member of the UNESCO University Twinning and Networking (UNITWIN) programme for maritime archaeology coordinated by the Flinders University in Australia and support SIDS experts' participation in the academic conferences such as the Asia-Pacific Conference on Underwater Cultural Heritage (APCONF). 

SAMOA Pathway Outcome Document (2014)

SAMOA Pathway Outcome Document adopted at the 3rd UN International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) (Samoa, 2014) acknowledged the SIDS provides support to SIDS's efforts to conserve their valuable UCH (paragraph 54) and invites SIDS to become parties to the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (paragraph 58).

Read the infographic on UCH and SAMOA Pathway.

Need of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) strategy for UCH safeguarding

UCH is susceptible to natural disasters, and disturbance can create pollution from underwater wrecks.  In response to concerns caused by an oil spill due to the disturbance of a WW II wreck, the USS Mississinewa in FSM waters, the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP) in cooperation with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) launched the Pacific Ocean Pollution Preventive Programme (PACPOL) in 1999 with the aims to maintain, protect, and enhance the quality of coastal and marine environments by minimising ship-sourced pollution.  PACPOL developed a comprehensive database of WW II-related UCH, containing information on 3,855 wrecks. The Pacific Islands Regional Marine Spill Contingency Plan (PACPLAN) is a framework for cooperative regional responses to oil spills including those from WWII wrecks.

Highlighting the historical and cultural importance of WWII-related UCH that need to be respected in their risk management strategy, UNESCO published a report "Safeguarding UCH in the Pacific: Report on Good Practice in the Protection and Management of WWII-related UCH" (2017) in cooperation with the Pacific UCH Partnership (PUCHP) network.

UN Ocean Conference (NY, June 2017)

UNESCO took part in the UN Ocean Conference (NY, June 2017) addressing the importance of the cultural and environmental value of the Ocean.

Factsheets (2017)

Model for a National Act on the Protection of Cultural Heritage

The text gives an example of a comprehensive law on the protection of cultural heritage, encompassing land-based as well as submerged immovable heritage as well as movable objects.  It is based on internationally accepted standards for heritage protection, in particular on the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. But also on the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Expert and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property).  A model export certificate elaborated by UNESCO in cooperation with the World Customs Organisation (WCO) is added to it. 

The formulations used are suggestions only and in no way binding.  Please consider that better formulations might be available and more appropriate for the national context.  Please also consider the inclusion of regulations on natural heritage, if applicable.

Technical Report on the UCH-related legislation and programme review in the five countries in Micronesia (2018)

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