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Intangible cultural heritage: A force for sustainable development

© 2010 Acervo PCR
Intangible cultural heritage: strengthening social cohesion (Brazil) - Frevo is an artistic expression in Brazil’s state of Pernambuco that gathers music, dance and crafts.

No society can flourish without culture – and no development can be sustainable without it. Culture holds answers to many of the challenges societies face today. Awareness of this connection between culture and development underscores the critical importance of intangible cultural heritage — the living cultural practices, expressions and knowledge systems that provide meaning to communities, that explain the world and shape it.

To illustrate the role that living heritage play in sustainable development, UNESCO is hosting an open exhibition, on the gates of its Fontenoy building, from 28 October to 10 December 2013. It is featuring short examples from different parts of the world (Brazil, Egypt, Estonia, Kenya, Samoa, Spain) illustrating how intangible cultural heritage contributes to different aspects of sustainable developement.

NGO Maavillane - Intangible cultural heritage: sustaining livelihoods (Estonia)

Despite its evident benefits, intangible cultural heritage is frequently overlooked in development circles, and erroneously reduced to folklore and rituals, depicted as relevant only to the economics of tourism and handicrafts. In negative cases, it is associated with harmful, static and archaic customs. Numerous studies, however, have clearly demonstrated that it is employed daily by communities, on all continents, to tackle everything from food scarcity and environmental change to health problems, education or conflict prevention and resolution.

Typified by attentive stewardship of nature’s resources, and the transmission of accumulated knowledge over time, intangible cultural heritage is a vibrant source of experience and lies at the heart of our identities. Indeed, it carries within it answers to many of our world’s issues.

Steven Percival -

And challenges are mounting across the globe. The UN-sponsored Millennium Project, commissioned by the Secretary-General, observes that more than 2.7 billion people still battle to get by on less than two dollars a day, and 800 million regularly go hungry, 300 million of them children. Multifarious issues imperil our common future: climate change, widening social disparities, the depletion of resources and loss of biodiversity, conflict, poor governance, unequal access to food and education, burgeoning and ageing populations, unfettered urbanization, health crises, water scarcity and more. Inaction cannot be an option.

In this context, the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage offers an important and ongoing space for dialogue, ideas and cooperation. It proposes an empowering platform where all communities and their wisdom are on an equal footing with other developmental approaches. The Convention’s consideration for existing international human rights instruments and sustainable development lend further strength to the framework.

Integrating intangible cultural heritage into present-day debate, policies, programmes and strategies surrounding sustainable development is now a matter of urgency. In this regard, the key report of the UN System Task Team on the post-2015 UN development agenda submitted to the Secretary-General, Realizing the Future We Want for All , provides a useful structure for future discussion and action with four specific dimensions

  1. inclusive social development;  
  2. inclusive economic development;
  3. environmental sustainability;
  4. peace and security.

Each of these dimensions can be viewed from the perspective of intangible cultural heritage — as is shown in the narrated cases of the exhibition. It include cases like, the excitement of the Frevo carnival in Brazil’s Pernambuco State, which demonstrates how the diverse communities of Recife can live together in harmony and how their shared intangible heritage supports a cohesive society.

It expresses our conviction that the Samoans who weave pandanus leaves into beautiful mats and bags have much to teach us about respecting environmental sustainability.

The exhibition also reminds us that communities around the world have devised social institutions to manage scarce natural resources such as water and to mediate differences that may arise among neighbours, as in the irrigator’s tribunals of Murcia and Valencia in Spain.

The spirit behind this exhibition is UNESCO’s belief that culture should be considered a fundamental enabler of sustainability, a source of meaning and energy, a wellspring of creativity and innovation, and a resource to address challenges and find appropriate solutions.

The exhibition is organized to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, thanks to generous financial contributions by Monaco and Turkey.

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