By Margaret Mac Lean
The creation of the UNESCO "Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage" in 1972 was a milestone in global cooperation to preserve places of natural and cultural value.
The World Heritage Committee, created in 1974 to enact the objectives of the Convention, has the responsibility of vetting the recommendations of likely "World Heritage Sites" by the nations signatory to the Convention. Successful nominations are inscribed on the World Heritage List, then monitored by the Committee to ensure that they receive the attention and care mandated by their status.
In 1977, the Committee first inscribed on the World Heritage List twelve sites, located in seven countries. In the fifteen years that have followed, the list has grown nearly thirty times in size. When the 16th Session of the World Heritage Committee met in the historic town of Santa Fe, New Mexico last December, the list included 358 sites in 95 countries.
The Santa Fe meetingcohosted by the U.S. National Park Service, UNESCO, and US/ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites)added even more sites to the list. Among them was New Mexico's Taos Pueblo, the 17th U.S. site to be listed.
Evaluating nominations to the World Heritage List is only a part of the World Heritage Committee's deliberations. Committee meetings now routinely devote themselves in part to reviewing monitoring reports of threatened or endangered sites. At the Santa Fe gathering, delegates discussed the condition and status of World Heritage Sites in the former Yugoslav republics, and the threats to other listed sites in Europe, North Africa, and Latin America.
Prominent on the meeting's agenda was designing policies to guide the work of the new World Heritage Centre in Paris. The Centre, created in May of 1992 to put into practice decisions of the World Heritage Committee, is intended to create links with leading scientific and conservation institutions in an effort to target the greatest possible array of resources on the protection of the world's heritage.
One of the Centre's functions will be partial responsibility for overseeing the monitoring procedures so critical to the long-term protection of listed sites. The procedures for evaluating and monitoring natural sites, developed with the assistance of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural resources) are relatively quantitative and well defined. The value of natural sites is in most cases based on the quality of the air and water, the uniqueness of habitat, the number of endangered species living in the region, and other measureable features. The principal qualitative element, the visual beauty of a place, can easily be recognized cross-culturally.
Interestingly, the criteria for evaluating and monitoring cultural sites are more complex and lack the precision of those for natural sites because the value or significance of a cultural monument is less easily characterized in universal terms. Significance is commonly bound up with the values of a specific culture or a group of related cultures. What makes a place valuable in one part of the world might not be so treasured elsewhere. This complicates the measuring of value, particularly over time as values change. Identifying ways to do this that can be replicated from one site to another and that result in reports that are comparable and useful, is, as the Committee recognized, an important goal for the Centre.
The current World Heritage Committee, comprised of delegates from 20 of the 129 nations that are signatories to the Convention, includes representatives from Brazil, China, Cyprus, Colombia, Egypt, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Oman, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Senegal, Spain, Syria, Thailand, Tunisia, and the United States.
Sixteen nations sent observers to the Santa Fe meeting. Organizations attending in an advisory capacity were ICOMOS, IUCN, and ICCROM (International Center for the Study of the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Property). Each of these organizations monitors and evaluates proposed, listed, and endangered World Heritage Sites. Among the nongovernmental organizations observing the proceedings were the World Wildlife Fund, the American Institute of Architects, and the Getty Conservation Institute.
The GCI accepted an invitation to observe at this important meeting because of its strong interest in the conservation and management of cultural sites. In various programmatic contexts, the Institute is seeking ways to contribute to the development of effective monitoring and management procedures for significant cultural sites around the world. This initiative may be of some benefit to the World Heritage Centre as it attempts to bring in advisory assistance from nongovernmental organizations. In meetings with various delegates from the states party to the Convention, and with officials from UNESCO and the Centre, GCI Director Miguel Angel Corzo and staff members Neville Agnew, Margaret Mac Lean, and Jane Slate Siena were able to identify areas of possible collaboration toward that end.
Margaret Mac Lean is a Senior Coordinator in the GCI's Training Program.