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Safeguarding communities’ living heritage

Buddhist chanting of Ladakh, India © 2008 by Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir

After long standing efforts by UNESCO’s Member States to provide a legal, administrative and financial framework for international cooperation to safeguard the world’s living heritage, the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage  was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in 2003.  Saving heritage at risk and giving a second chance to fragile cultures to come forward and contribute to the diversity of the world was the initial purpose of this normative instrument.

Intangible cultural heritage refers to the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills handed down from generation to generation. This heritage provides communities with a sense of identity and is continuously recreated in response to their environment. It is called intangible because its existence and recognition depend mainly on the human will, which is immaterial, and it is transmitted by imitation and living experience. Intangible cultural heritage is also known as "living heritage" or "living culture".

UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage indicates five broad ‘domains’ in which, among others, intangible cultural heritage is manifested:

Venezuela's Dancing Devils of Corpus Christi © 2010 Fundación Centro de la Diversidad Cultural

The importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted. The social and economic value of this transmission of knowledge is relevant for minority groups and for mainstream social groups within a State, and is as important for developing States as for developed ones. UNESCO strives to cooperate with countries around the world for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage which nourishes cultural diversity and human creativity.


The power of culture as a leverage for boosting distinct areas of economic, social, political and artistic life, interconnected by the practice of a living heritage, is demonstrated: the protection of the Otomí-Chichimeca in Mexico allowed the improvement of roads, the construction of systems of water purification, the creation of local jobs and tourism infrastructure.

Folk art of the Matyó, embroidery of a traditional community, Hungary © 2008 by Ms Lászlóné Berecz

To facilitate its implementation, the Convention holds a set of measures carried out at the national and international level.
At a national level, the Convention requests each State:

  • To identify and define intangible cultural heritage present on its territory with the participation of communities, groups and relevant NGOs,
  • To draw up, and regularly update, inventories of the intangible cultural heritage.

At an international level, all States that have ratified the Convention meet in the General Assembly of the States Parties to the Convention every two years. The General Assembly gives strategic orientations for the implementation of the Convention and elects the 24 members of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which meets every year to promote the aims of the Convention and monitor its implementation.

The agenda of the seventh session of the Intergovernmental Committee to be held from 3 to 7 December 2012 in Paris will include the examination of:

Countries benefitting from capacity-building activities since 2010

It is worth noting that several States in their reports underlined the importance of strengthening national capacities for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage, in particular the training of government staff and NGOs for effective implementation of the Convention. 

Since 2010 to date, 66 countries have benefitted from UNESCO’s capacity-building activities of different scale with each project lasting a period of approximately 24 to 36 months. 

This global strategy entails a long-term and multi-faceted approach that addresses the revision of policies and legislation, the redesign of institutional infrastructures, the development of inventory methods and systems, the full involvement of diverse stakeholders, and the technical skills required to safeguard intangible cultural heritage.

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