Heritage: legacy from the past to the future

© UNESCO/Nelson Muchagata
Small historical village in Brazil

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today and we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration, our touchstone, our reference point, our identity.

What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory in which they are located.

Countries recognize that the sites located on their national territory and inscribed on the World Heritage List, without prejudice to national sovereignty or national ownership, are part of a universal heritage "for whose protection it is the duty of the international community as a whole to co-operate."

Many countries have sites of local or national interests which constitute a reason of national credit and the Convention encourages them to identify and protect the heritage, no matter if it is or if it is not included on the World Heritage List.

Brief History

Preservation of cultural heritage

The event that raised particular international concern was the decision to build the great Aswan dam in Egypt that could inundate the valley where the temples of Abu Simbel were located, a treasure of ancient Egyptian civilization. In 1959, UNESCO decided to launch an international campaign based on a request from the governments of Egypt and Sudan. The archaeological research in areas that were flooded was then accelerated. Mainly the temples of Abu Simbel and Philae were then completely took apart, transported to a land safe from flooding and assembled there.

The success of that campaign led to other saving campaigns, such as in Venice, Italy, in Moenjodaro, Pakistan, and Borobodur, Indonesia, to name just a few. Then, UNESCO initiated along with the help of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) the development of a Convention project on the protection of cultural heritage.

Linking cultural and natural heritage

The idea of combining cultural sites preservation with natural sites conservation was developed by the United States. A conference in 1965 at the White House in Washington asked to create a "World Heritage Foundation" that would stimulate international cooperation to protect "wonderful natural areas and landscapes of the world and historical sites for the present and the future of the whole humanity". In 1968, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) developed similar proposals, which were presented to the UN Conference on the Human Environment held by the United Nations in Stockholm in 1972.

Finally, all parties have agreed on the adoption of a single text. Thus, the UNESCO General Conference adopted on 16 November 1972 the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.
By considering heritage in its dual aspect (cultural and natural), the Convention reminds us ways in which human being interacts with nature and, at the same time, the fundamental need to preserve the balance between them.

The Convention

Content of the Convention

The Convention defines the classes of natural or cultural sites that may be included on the World Heritage List and establishes the duty of Member States related to the identification of possible sites. It also defines the role that each actor should play to preserve and protect these sites. By signing the Convention, each country pledges to conserve not only the World Heritage property located in its territory, but also to protect its national heritage.

The Convention should also explains how to use the World Heritage Fund, how to manage it and under what conditions international financial assistance can be provided.

This request must include a plan detailing how to manage and protect the site.

The criteria for selection

To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must meet some of the following selection criteria.

The cultural heritage must:

i.represent a masterpiece of human creative genius, or

ii.be the manifestation of an important exchange of human values over a given period or in a specific cultural area, in the development of architecture, monumental arts, urban planning or landscaping, or

iii.bring a unique or exceptional testimony of a cultural tradition or of a civilization which is still alive or has disappeared, or

iv.be an outstanding example of a type of building or an architectural or technological set, or of a landscape which illustrates one or more significant milestones in the history of humanity, or

v.constitute an outstanding example of habitat or traditional human settlement or land use which is representative of a culture or cultures, especially those who have become vulnerable because of the effects of irreversible change, or

vi.be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas or beliefs, or with artistic or literary works of outstanding universal significance (the Committee considers that this criterion should not justify the inscription on the List, except from exceptional circumstances and from a joint application with other cultural or natural criteria) 

It is also important the authenticity criterion of the site and the way it is protected and managed.

The natural heritage must:

i.be outstanding representative examples of the different periods in Earth's history, including record of the evolution, of significant ongoing geological processes, development of landforms or of geomorphic and physiographic significant elements, or

ii.be outstanding examples representing significant ecological and biological processes for the evolution and the development of terrestrial, coastal, marine and freshwater, communities of plants and animals ecosystems, or

iii.include outstanding natural phenomena or areas of natural beauty and an outstanding aesthetic importance, or

iv.include the most important natural habitats and more representative of in situ conservation of biological diversity, including those comprising threatened species that have an outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation. 

The protection, the management and the site integrity are also important criteria.

The mixed sites have, at the same time, an outstanding natural and cultural value. Since 1992, significant interactions between humans and the natural environment have been recognized as cultural landscapes. 

Protection of endangered sites

World Heritage conservation is an ongoing process. Including a site on the List is not enough if subsequently the site is degraded or if the qualities that initially made it able to be included on the World Heritage List is destroyed by any kind of development project.

In practice, countries take this responsibility seriously. Individuals, non-governmental organizations and other groups use to report to the World Heritage Committee possible dangers to a site. If the alert is justified and the problem is serious enough, the site will be included on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Funding and Support

The World Heritage Fund was created in 1972 by the Convention. The resources of the Fund is composed by compulsory contributions from Member States, totaling 1% of their contributions to UNESCO, and voluntary contributions. Other sources of income consist of trust funds that are donated by countries with specific purposes and the income due to sales of publications of the World Heritage.

International assistance
The World Heritage Fund provides assistance in the identification and conservation of World Heritage sites. Preparing, conserving and preserving the World Heritage is expensive and not all requests for international assistance can be answered by World Heritage Fund resources. The World Heritage Committee uses very strict conditions and requires that the requests fit into clearly defined categories: preparatory assistance, technical cooperation, emergency assistance and training.

Educational programs
World Heritage Education Program aims at helping schools around the world to include World Heritage information in their education programs and extracurricular activities. The objective is that young people and future leaders can be able to understand and appreciate cultural and natural heritage of outstanding value to humanity. The World Heritage Centre, along with the UNESCO Education Sector, organizes events such as roundtables and forums to inform young people about the goals and successes in the conservation of World Heritage.

Audiovisual material
Several multimedia articles are available such as CD-ROM, Photo CD and CD-I on the World Heritage, including a CD-I dictionary multimedia on the World Heritage sites and a CD-ROM on 104 World Heritage cities. One can get further information on the World Heritage Centre database on the Internet, which includes brief reviews of all World Heritage sites in French, English and Spanish.

The inclusion of a property in the World Heritage List

How a country should include sites on the World Heritage List

1) The State Party:
Prepares a list of cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value situated within its territory.
Selects property for inclusion on the World Heritage List.
A country becomes a State Party by signing the World Heritage Convention and pledging to protect their cultural and natural heritage.

2) World Heritage Center:
Checks whether the request for inclusion is achieved.
Established in 1992, the World Heritage Centre is the UNESCO focal point and coordinator on all issues related to World Heritage.

3) ICOMOS and/or IUCN:
Send experts to visit the sites, to evaluate their protection and management.
Develop a technical report.
Assess whether the property has "outstanding universal value".

Two non-governmental organizations work as advisory bodies: The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN). 

4) Bureau of the World Heritage:
Examines the assessment.
Makes a recommendation for registration or requests additional information for the State Party.

The Bureau of the World Heritage is a small executive body composed of seven members of the World Heritage Committee and is able to prepare the work of the Committee.

5) The World Heritage Committee:
Makes the final decision to include the site on the World Heritage List or postpones the decision, waiting for more background information, or refuses the entry. 

Composed of 21 representatives of States Parties of the Convention, the World Heritage Committee is responsible for guiding the implementation of the World Heritage Convention.

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