11.07.2019 - UNESCO Office in New Delhi

Keynote address at the celebration of the Receipt of the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Conservation 2018, Leh (India), 8 July 2019

by Mr Eric Falt, Director and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, Maldives, and Sri Lanka

Mr Phunchok Stobdan, Founding President of Ladakh International Centre and former Indian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan;
Dr Monisha Ahmed Founder of the Ladakh Arts and Media Organization (LAMO);
Dr Angchuk Munshi, Owner of Munshi House

Ladies, gentlemen and friends,

I am delighted to be here with you this afternoon to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Ladakh. As you know, this event is also a celebration of the receipt of the prestigious UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation by the Ladakh Arts and Media Organization (LAMO) in 2018.

At the very outset therefore, I would like to congratulate LAMO for the achievement of winning the 2018 Award for Distinction in what is a highly competitive regional contest.

As most of you are no doubt aware, the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards recognize the efforts of private individuals and organizations that have successfully conserved structures and buildings of heritage value in the Asia-Pacific region. The Awards aim to encourage other property owners to undertake similar conservation projects within their communities, either independently or by seeking public-private partnerships. 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the Awards – this makes it an especially important year to reflect on past successes, and also to advocate the core objectives of the Awards.  

The purpose of the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards reflects the spirit of UNESCO’s World Heritage programme, which of course, is among our most visible and acclaimed initiatives. UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites are cultural or natural sites of outstanding historical, cultural or environmental significance. They must be protected and conserved in the collective interest of humanity. Doing so in a sustainable way necessarily involves a multi-stakeholder approach. The work of Governments and intergovernmental bodies must therefore be supplemented by the efforts of civil society, community members, and other private actors.

Today, India has 38 UNESCO World Heritage Sites – a number that we are sure will grow steadily in the years ahead. The most recent Indian entrant to the World Heritage List is the Pink City of Jaipur, which was inscribed earlier this very month. As I like to remind our interlocutors however, there are many hundreds of structures around the country that are not formally designated as World Heritage Sites, but which absolutely must be protected as they are indispensable markers of our history and identity. That is why local conservation initiatives such as LAMO’s restoration of two historic 17th century mansions in the Old Town of Leh are invaluable.

Our experience with World Heritage Sites has shown that successful conservation and preservation projects have a positive impact on local economies. Studies have revealed that tourist traffic to cultural and natural sites jumps by at least 40 per cent per year following their designation as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Increased tourism provides a natural impetus for the growth of related cultural enterprises and support services. The ecosystem thus created helps local communities reap considerable socio-economic dividends.

As H.E. Mahesh Sharma, the former Minister for Culture had said last year when Mumbai’s Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles were recognized as a World Heritage Site, the expected surge in domestic and international tourism would help ‘boost the local economy’ through ‘increased employment generation, the creation of world-class infrastructure, and the augmentation of the sale of local handicrafts’.

Leh and Ladakh, of course, are already much-sought-after tourist destinations. We believe though that the promotion of conservation efforts like LAMO’s – where in fact the two restored mansions have been converted into a public arts centre – would give an even greater fillip to heritage tourism in the region, and assist the development of ancillary cultural industries. It is important that built heritage and intangible cultural heritage come to be regarded as a composite whole.

This is a perspective that we have increasingly adopted at UNESCO. Its benefits for tourism are easily understood. For instance, our Creative Cities Network defines certain heritage cities in terms of the vibrancy and uniqueness of their creative and cultural industries. Indeed, as Target 12.b of the Sustainable Development Goals notes, we must make every effort to build ‘sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products’.

Dear friends, I must mention that the 2018 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards also saw two other initiatives from India – besides LAMO’s – win recognition. The Clock Tower and University of Mumbai Library Building; and the Ruttonsee Muljee Jetha Fountain, also from Mumbai, both won Honourable Mentions. It is rare and laudable for three conservation projects from a single country to be felicitated at the Asia-Pacific Awards. This is a distinction India should rightfully be proud of.

A few final comments about the LAMO initiative. The Old Town of Leh is a cosmopolitan, living remnant of the once thriving Punjab–Tibet–China trade route. The two restored and extended mansions now stand proudly against a backdrop of mudbrick houses and community spaces below the majestic 17th century Leh Palace. The buildings have been restored from a state of partial ruin, and the arts centre that they now house is open to local residents and visitors.

The project ensured the use of local building materials and indigenous construction techniques at all stages, even as modern amenities were introduced. This is significant from the conservation perspective. At UNESCO, we believe that dynamic engagement with local communities and settings is critical for sustainable heritage management. You will be pleased to know that in the aftermath of the devastating Kerala floods of 2018, for example, we recommended to the Kerala Government that traditional building material should be used for the reconstruction of indigenous housing. We felt that not only would this help preserve the authenticity of local heritage, and engender pride in upholding local traditions, the labour-intensive indigenous building methods would also offer specialized longer-term livelihood opportunities to a larger number of community members. We are glad that a similar approach has been deployed by LAMO in Leh.

UNESCO is convinced that the Leh and Mumbai projects set important benchmarks for urban conservation. The LAMO project in particular has had to deal with the additional challenges of conservation in a mountainous and disaster-prone region. We hope that these initiatives will inspire other non-Government stakeholders to launch efforts to protect the cultural heritage of their respective cities. A large proportion of built heritage in cities is privately owned – hence their involvement in preserving these urban treasures is essential.

Citizens and private actors must actively begin to complement the efforts of Government bodies and development agencies. It is only then that we will be able to achieve Target 11.4 of the SDGs which urges us to ‘safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage’.

Thank you.

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