Costa Rica ratifies the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage


The 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage entered into force for Costa Rica on 27 July.

Costa Rica's ratification is the 60th in the world and the 20th in the region; with this, the country joins most of the states of the Latin American and Caribbean region.

According to Article 1 of the Convention, "Underwater cultural heritage means all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years..."

In 2001, UNESCO member states adopted the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage to establish basic principles for the protection of this heritage. The States that have ratified the Convention have undertaken to preserve this heritage, combat its commercial exploitation, the looting of sites and the illicit trafficking of objects originating from the sites. The Convention also fosters the exchange of information and public awareness of its importance. It also provides for commonly recognized practical standards for the treatment and research of underwater cultural heritage and has, as its main objectives, the protection, conservation and promotion of underwater cultural heritage in a controlled manner and its improvement for local development.

"For Costa Rica, the ratification of the Convention represents a major challenge for the regularization and protection of the cultural and archaeological heritage that exists underwater. To date, the National Museum has identified at least 20 cultural sites throughout the country that fall into one of the five categories established by the Convention. With this instrument, a process of capacity building is initiated as a new challenge for the country", explained Ms Sylvie Durán Salvatierra, Minister of Culture and Youth.

Mr Enrique Conde León, Minister Counsellor of the Spanish Embassy in Costa Rica, stated that this Convention is "of extraordinary importance because it is a heritage that belongs, beyond the areas of maritime jurisdiction, to humanity". This project is managed by the UNESCO Cluster Office in Costa Rica and is part of the Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) Heritage Protection Programme, whose main line of work consists of supporting the multiple existing processes in conservation, restoration, preservation and revaluation of heritage assets, both tangible and intangible, and analyzing their contribution to sustainable development".

Ms Myrna Rojas, head of the National Museum's Department of Anthropology and History, explained that once the Convention enters into force, the next step is regulation. "It is necessary to operationalize the Convention by means of a regulation that establishes guidelines and responsibilities of the different parties, in order to guarantee the good management and protection of the historical and archaeological sites that fall into these categories," Rojas said.

With the progress of diving techniques, the remains that lie at the bottom of the waters are now within the reach of archaeologists, but also of "treasure hunters". For this reason, the looting of archaeological sites has developed on at a large scale. However, although many States have strengthened the preservation of their terrestrial heritage, submerged heritage often remains unprotected. Ratification of the 2001 Convention contributes to the protection of the underwater heritage from looting by "treasure hunting" companies.

Costa Rica has many natural treasures, most of them in sight, but the country also has its share of underwater treasures, especially archaeological ones such as the burial site of "La Regla", the oldest burial site known to date, located in Jicaral de Puntarenas or the fishing traps in the Gulf of Nicoya. More recently, the remains of an allegedly old ship stranded in Manzanillo de Limón were added to the scarce list of findings in the category of "Remains of ships and other means of transport, their cargo or other contents". These vestiges, among many others, are what the country is striving to protect.

Ms Pilar Álvarez, Director of UNESCO in San José, explains that by becoming a party to the Convention, Costa Rica now has access to the system of international cooperation in underwater archaeology, which provides the best international standards of protection and research for its submerged archaeological sites. It will also promote the training of Costa Rican archaeologists and specialists in the field of underwater cultural heritage and work to raise public awareness of the need to protect and learn about this heritage.

The Central American region has written the history of the different nations and peoples that make it up through a close relationship with the aquatic environment, and has become one of the regions with the largest number of ships sunk in its waters, a cultural heritage in danger of plundering and destruction. In addition, the vestiges of pre-Hispanic cultures found under the waters of seas, rivers and lakes are increasingly important and constitute a key testimony to the understanding of the historical reality of the region.

Only the adequate protection of these submerged remains can guarantee their investigation and public access, and thus allow a better understanding of the ancestors and the historical development of the continent, as well as rescue part of its cultural memory from oblivion.

In this regard, this heritage has been the subject of several activities under the project "Safeguarding underwater cultural heritage in Latin America and the Caribbean" of the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID). 

Links of interest:

Underwater heritage identified in Costa Rica:

Video on underwater heritage :

Video on the UNESCO 2001 Convention :

Video of the event:  







Back to top