World heritage … protecting for a future, but balance is not easy

MY COMMENT: World Heritage status has its realities – is the shear number of Sites on the now-huge List, actually meaning their value is being ‘watered down’ – but its existence has huge benefits for the local culture, people, nature and economy with the focus on tourism. These needs and demands do require to be very carefully balanced.

From The China Daily

Culturally rich provinces have to strike the right balance between preserving sites and relics and making money

China may have the second highest entry on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list, but it is still in the primary stages of protecting its cultural heritage sites and relics and faces many problems in preserving them.

For example, the Old Town of Lijiang in Yunnan province, home to the Naxi ethnic group and their unique culture, is on the World Cultural Heritage list. But the Naxi culture seems to be dwindling. The influx of outsiders into Lijiang may be partly to blame for that. Many Naxi people have rented their houses (in many cases to non-Naxi people and foreigners) and moved out of the town, dealing a blow to their traditional culture.

Several months ago, I visited the Hani Terraces, a cultural heritage site also in Yunnan, and was shocked to see the sorry state of what should have been an esoteric but wonderful culture. The local government pumped huge funds and resources into the site in a failed bid to win the World Cultural Heritage status in 2008. And that seems to have caused the maximum damage to culture and traditions mainly of the Hani and Yi ethnic groups, who are primarily responsible for the terraces.

It’s still not too late to save Lijiang and Hani Terraces and their distinct cultures. But for that the local governments have to focus on cultural protection instead of profits.

China is a signatory to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention and is expected to do everything in its power to protect cultural heritage within its borders, for cultural rights are an indispensable part of human rights. The central and local governments should realize that cultural heritage means much more than booming tourism and profits. Cultural heritage is the inner soul of a nation.

That does not mean cultural heritage should not be used to boost tourism. But there has to be a limit to its exploitation. The most important thing for the governments to do is to strike a healthy balance between protection and exploitation of the sites. This will help preserve culture and make life better for the people.

There are two kinds of cultural heritage – one has economic potential, the other does not. The first kind can be used to make profits, but only after strict protection measures are taken. Only if cultural heritage is well protected can it bring about long-term economic and social benefits. The second kind has to be preserved in various forms, such as texts, videos and audios. Since we have inherited thousands of texts and relics from our ancestors, it is our duty to pass them down to later generations.

A major problem that cultural heritage sites and relics face today is profit-minded officials. Such officials’ only aim is to make money. They are not bothered about preserving cultural heritage. I once met one such official who asked me what were the (monetary) benefits of protecting cultural heritage. Such views lack foresight and, if put into practice, can only shred the rich cultural tapestry of China.

The uneven distribution of economic returns from tourism and other cultural heritage-related fields is the other major problem. Years ago, I proposed setting up a shareholding company in Lijiang, which would have offered material assistance to the city’s original inhabitants according to the location of their houses, and encouraged them to wear their traditional dresses and speak the Naxi dialect. Such an arrangement would have brought them benefits as well as motivated them to protect their culture.

But guided by the laws of utility, the local government encouraged real estate developers and other speculative industries to move into the center of the town to make money.

The resultant tourism boom has raised the living cost in Lijiang manifold and forced the town’s original residents to rent their houses to non-Naxi people and shift to other places. The outcome is the decline of traditional culture and the influx of an alien culture into Lijiang.

Yunnan province is now planning to seek World Cultural Heritage tags for the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway, the Ancient Tea Route and some very old tea gardens. But before local governments apply to UNESCO they have to change their old practices and take transparent decisions that will help preserve the heritage sites in the long run. Besides, they should be open to the views of the people and the media.

Yunnan has a rich and diversified culture and many historical and natural sites. These sites – and the relics they preserve – can propel the development of the province and its people if handled properly.

Local governments in Yunnan and other provinces should learn from their mistakes if they want to build a better cultural future. They have to be doubly cautious not to repeat the mistakes that are now threatening the Old Town of Lijiang. A culture cannot be preserved without protecting the people who practice it.

The benefits of a World Cultural Heritage site has to be shared by the people to prevent it from getting ruined.

The author is a member of China Federation of Literary and Art Circles.



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