INTERVIEW WITH Yonas Beyene
Yonas Beyene is Program Director of the Association for Research and Conservation of Cultures (ARCC), which is a non-profit volunteer organization established in Hawassa (Ethiopia). He was member of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO. Beyene has also prepared the document for the Nomination file of the Konso Cultural Landscape, which resulted in its nomination by UNESCO in 2011 as World Heritage Site. For a long time he has worked for the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Ethiopia, and served as Academic and Research Vice president of Wolkite University (Ethiopia).
Hi Yonas, as keynote speaker of the topic “Cooperation” there are a lot of issues we can discuss. Going straight to the matter, we would like to start asking about your opinion in a delicate topic; if cooperation is a way of promoting more dependence from the West, as many postcolonial critiques claim.
Cooperation is an interdependence between two parties over a certain/defined issue. When we talk of cooperation we should not think of it, only as an issue of relationships between the rich and the poor, as in between the west and developing countries; but also as synergetic relationships globally. With regards to culture, cooperation should be viewed in relation to the World Heritage Convention which promotes appreciation of global cultures and using them to better future of humanity and its wellbeing through dialogue and mutual understanding.
In a previous interview, Jordi Tresserras commented about the potential of World Heritage as wealth increaser. Do you think the current way of funding in the World Heritage programme actually makes a difference for countries like Ethiopia?
I agree with the idea that world heritage sites could be potential areas of economic development. However, this should go hand in hand with the understanding that world heritage sites are fragile and delicate, yet important resources which need maximum care/protection. It is true that every country wishes to use its world heritage sites for promoting national image building, and to boost its economy. This is possible only with a management system which takes local realities in to consideration. The World Heritage Program has been working on capacity building of culture experts in individual countries. This has resulted in local/indigenous culture experts of developing countries to take maters in their own hands. In addition to capacity building, World Heritage programs have clearly supported conservation of fragile sites and sites that were placed in endangered list- thanks to the periodic monitoring, evaluations of the Advisory Bodies and direct interventions. It is clear that world heritage sites with good conservation programs, working management systems, and educational and promotional schemes are excellent economic resources benefiting local communities through venues such as tourism.
Timothy Wirth (2003: 90) addressed the poverty surrounding ‘too many’ World Heritage sites, who is then benefitted from the aid received for World Heritage?
The World Heritage Nomination is aimed at recognizing sites of outstanding Universal Value for conservation, recognition and promotion. It is true that properties nominated in third world countries are not well budgeted for to insure their conservation and promotion. These sites in developing countries were already in poor state of conservation even before they were nominated. Some are built, whereas most are either Cultural landscapes or Natural sites. It is very challenging to keep up with the wellbeing of these sites, as communities are directly involved in local development. Alleviating poverty in world heritage sites should be the priority of State Parties (governments) through policies which empower communities both through ownership, management and economic aspects related to the sites. Compared to the number of world heritage sites which are in need of support, and the amount of money needed to adequately respond to local needs, UNESCO alone can’t cope up with poverty issues. Countries should develop local resources which in turn could insure ownership and care to indigenous heritage properties. This said, however, whatever support provided by UNESCO should be used to help sustain heritage sites.
There has also been high controversy in the concept of cooperation itself, seen either as traditional funding or charity. Do you think World Heritage programmes actually receive any cooperation? If so, in which way?
I don’t see cooperation as charity. Charity is something you give, and give for alleviating immediate needs related to poverty reduction. Cooperation is a two way interaction in which both cooperating parties benefit. Cooperation is the key for the success and up-keeping of the WH Convention. Cooperation in World Heritage is the duty of every body for the betterment of the future of humanity. We share one planet and we enjoy common origins. We are one species benefiting from common heritages. A paleoanthropological site on the WH list is heritage for all humankind. A Natural site in Africa or in Latin America is crucial in keeping the natural balance of the Planet. The polar ice budget is as important for people living in the Sahara as it is for the Eskimos.
This conference is about people and communities, but we have mainly been talking about stones. What is the place of local people in the process of nomination and management of a World Heritage site? Is there a place for cooperation in this case?
Local communities who live in World Heritage sites are either the creators of a particular site or the guardians who have protected it throughout its existence. Cultural sites without local communities are devoid of life. Local communities have profound knowledge about the site they are living in. They are like living encyclopaedias that need to be referred to, and put in to good use in collaboration with scholars. Nomination processes should involve consultations with local communities from the beginning to the final stage. The local communities should be at the heart of the nomination processes; as they are more knowledgeable about the history, functioning of the sites and their significance; and they insure their conservation for future generations. The new trend of ‘’Up Stream Process’’ approach in the nomination processes of WH sites is an indication about the importance of the role of local communities in cultural heritage management.
You had the opportunity of working in the nomination file for the Konso Cultural Landscape. How different was this process from others where Western cooperation took a leading part?
It is true that numerous management plans and nomination files in developing countries in the past were prepared, mainly by western scholars. The role played by local scholars usually was never highlighted adequately. The Konso Management Plan and nomination file document is different in this regard. The field work was led and documentations were carried out by local scholars and community members. The nomination process was discussed prior to any activity, and was accepted by members of the local communities and the Ethiopian government; and supported, and at finally endorsed by the Regional and Federal Governments. The local communities have taken the lead in defining the cultural landscapes. However, the process was supported through grants from what you termed as “Western Cooperation,” providing a wonderful example in global cooperation for heritage recognition and promotion.
The Semien Mountains are still in the Danger List and local communities seem to be part of the problem to UNESCO (WHC 2011). Can cooperation help to get a solution beneficial both to the site and people?
Actually local communities in the Semien Mountains are aware of the importance of the site. These communities have always lived with their environment and helped maintain the natural balance. They are working to resolve problems together with the government and through cooperation programs. Globally important sites with endangered plants and animal species are very sensitive to changes. That is why concerted efforts by all are needed. We have to consider the prevalence of increasing population in developing countries, which need far more agricultural land; and global climatic change is currently a huge challenge. Hence more scientific research and collaborative work needs to be undertaken in sites such as Semien Mountains.
- Wirth, Timothy E. (2003): World Heritage as a Flagship Programme for Nature Conservation in UNESCO: World Heritage 2002: shared legacy, common responsibility. [http://whc.unesco.org/en/activities/563/] Accessed in January 2015
- WHC (2011): SOC Report 2011 [http://whc.unesco.org/en/soc/281] Accessed in January 2015