Intangible Cultural Heritage in Emergencies

At the 11th session of the Intergovernmental Committee of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (28 November-2 December 2016, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), the issue of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Emergencies was item no 15 of the Agenda and adopted by the Committee.

UNESCO has been called upon many times to respond to emergencies – resulting either from armed conflicts or natural disasters – in the field of culture and has developed action plans, as well as International Conventions for the protection of Cultural Property. However, so far these action plans or conventions involved monuments, namely tangible cultural heritage. Decision 15 lays the foundations for a new effort to safeguard Intangible Cultural Heritage in Emergency Circumstances.

Greece played a determinative role in opening this discussion, as the rationale behind Decision 15 has acknowledged, when during the sixth session (May/June 2016) of the General Assembly of the States-Parties of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO 2003) the delegation made a statement in which it requested enhanced cooperation with the other UNESCO Conventions for Cultural Heritage, and particularly with the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (The Hague, 1954) inviting the Secretariat ‘to facilitate further deliberations and elaboration on the value of intangible cultural heritage and its safeguarding in cases of armed conflict and its role for reconciliation’.

The starting point for the mobilization of the Greek experts in the 2003 Convention was the collaboration of the Directorate of Modern Cultural Assets and Intangible Cultural Heritage with the communities of Pontian origin, that perform the Momoeria New Year’s celebrations in eight villages of Kozani Prefecture (a collaboration which resulted in the inscription of the element on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016). The drafting of the inscription of this element on the National Inventory helped us reflect on the potential of Intangible Cultural Heritage in emergencies. Our perception of ICH gradually evolved towards a better understanding of its value in relation to healing the trauma of displacement and the preservation of the cohesion of communities that have suffered from warfare or natural disasters.

The ‘subtle power’ of Intangible Cultural Heritage and its contribution to the prevention of conflicts and environmental disasters and in the integration of refugee populations

Intangible cultural heritage is a living tradition. The bearers of its elements are people. Intangible heritage cannot exist without its bearers. In the case of war, people become the target. In the case of natural disasters etc. people are the accidental victim. Relocation of people caused by war, climate change, but also large-scale planned human interventions in the environment are intensified. The involuntary —or violent— tranfer of people from their original location disturbs collective memory, as space is one of the ‘social frameworks’ in which people’s memory is inscribed.

Furthermore, intangible cultural heritage is identified as such when it establishes communities; when people assert that it forms part of their identity which offers them a sense of belonging to a distinct group. In the war conflicts that took place over the past decades in Europe and the Middle-East, the identity –cultural, ethnic or religious—has been at stake. We are confronted with the destruction of monuments precisely because traces of otherness, of an identity that is not tolerated by some, must be annihilated. The intangible cultural heritage along with the tangible, in which it is reflected, is targeted.

Greece recognizes the dual nature of intangible cultural heritage in emergencies, whereby on the one hand its viability can be directly threatened, and on the other hand its mobilization as a powerful leverage for resilience and recovery can be of significant benefit to affected populations

Intangible cultural heritage helps coping with the trauma caused by conflicts. Practising elements of Intangible Cultural Heritage by refugees and uprooted people has in the past helped in their integration into the new places where they settled. Acknowledging the dynamics of Intangible Cultural Heritage in coping with traumatic circumstances following armed conflicts and expatriation (either due to war or climate change) we can contribute to the reinforcement of cultural diversity and peaceful reconstitution of communities that have suffered from violent conflicts, persecutions and uprooting.

Moreover, community-based and local knowledge may offer valuable insights into environmental change due to climate change, and complement broader-scale scientific research with local precision and nuance. Identifying and understanding sustainable environmental management practices, which oral traditions encompass, is a valuable guide for the prevention of natural disasters.