Friday, 4 August 2017



 Image result for UNESCO LOGO

     There are a number of things I find rather useless in our modern lives. Decaf coffee. Why? Have a decent coffee or don't. Low alcohol beer.....drink beer or don't. The choice is yours. Even more intriguing.....vegetarian sausages....we don't have "make-believe" carrots made of beef or potatoes made of pork, so why bother? I am not criticising those who choose differring dietetic lifestyles but do question the need to make "look-a-like" products.

     Similarly a number of misnomers seem to have weaseled their way into 21st century parlance (can misnomers weasel?). Fast food, for example, sustenance can be fast or food..but definitely not both. Nut burgers? And as is either beer, or it is not, coffee or flavoured dishwater. Please don't get me started on "Public Transport" or "Community Archaeology"!

     But, you may be asking, what has any of this to do with UNESCO and the World Heritage Convention?

     First we need to understand that the concept of heritage varies, both in linguistic terms and, perhaps more importantly, in cultural terms. Whilst we like to consider that we live in a global village, it is a fact that the meaning and importance of heritage varies significantly both from a "western" to an "eastern" point of view.....generally linear or cyclic, but also across differing cultures within the same geographic region. 

     The idea then that a "World Convention", however laudable, could satisfy such differing conceptions is, therefore, flawed. Despite this, at first glance  UNESCO seems to be an effective, and globally recognised, system of protection. Or is it?

     Let's limit this debate to sites, which under UNESCO can be considered cultural, natural or mixed. There are ten specific criteria which are considered..and a large number of other compliance considerations, all of which are available from the UNESCO site ( Here is not the place to go into them in any great depth, rather I would like you to consider why sites might need to be included on the list...and what purpose the list serves.

     Let me tell you about Stonehenge. As a young man I drove past the site on many an occasion. Time permitting I would park on the side of the road, climb over the conveniently place stile, and walk around the stones.

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A typical english stile, a simple step to get over a wire fence without catching on the barbed wire!

     Sometimes I even had time for a picnic and once I camped overnight amongst the stones (and before you ask I did, of couse, ensure that I left no trace, no litter..not even a cigarette butt!). Some years later I took my new wife to visit (not that I traded in the old one, I just married for the first time a little late in life), we had to park on the other side of the road, pass through a visitor centre, pay to access the site via a tunnel under the road and were kept at some distance from the stones, on clearly marked walkways enforced by a number of highly visible security staff. Visiting last year, and all has changed. The visitor centre is now a mile away and the stones cannot be seen. Access is by electric bus, and controlled the like of which I haven't seen since Checkpoint Charlie closed down. And it is expensive.

Stonehenge Visitor Centre by Denton Corker Marshall
The new visitor centre....from which access to Stonehenge is made by bus.

     Similarly I recently spent a few weeks in Southern Portugal and took a few days out to visit the city of Evora, also a WHS. The medieval walls are impressive, as are the churches but the same could be said of all of those in Portugal. The Roman ruins, known as the Temple of Diana (a 17th century idea), the Parthenenon they are not, but nice all the same. The Bone Chapel is also well worth a visit, but is not unique and there other examples in Portugal, perhaps most notably in Faro.

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     You may wonder where this is all going. Well, the Comittee recently concluded it's most recent deliberations. Amongst other sites now accorded WHS status, two in particular caught my attention. First is the spectacular Lake District in northern England, about 90mins in the car from where I live.

     The second is a small island I had never previously heard of, Okinoshima, in the Munakata region of Japan. 

     Both very different. The Lake District is an area of outstanding natural me, it really is. Okinoshima is a small island, women are banned and is open to visit just once a year by a maximum of 200 people (all men, obviously). How it is protected I know not, but I am sure that it is (rigidly) and that the penalties for infringement are dire (being in Japan). Been wondering how to get on the list to visit...willing to bet it would be easier to win the lottery. And yet it is from these two sites that we recognise what the WHS system is all about.

     WH sites are in need of protection, and yet despite UNESCO, no funding or infrastructure is supplied to ensure survival of these places. Over the past few years we have witnessed the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan (Afghanistan), The Temple of Baal (Syria) and The Great Mosque of al-Nuri (Iraq) and many others besides. Noticeably we have been unable to protect such sites, such duties fall on the local and national governments concerned and where such do not exist, well.....!  Or it may be that other priorities exist and that a mutual understanding of heritage differs. Either way little can be done.

Aerial image showing the neighbourhood around the al-Nuri mosque.
Little is left of the Great Mosque al-Nuri, Mosul, Iraq.
     Similarly the satellite evaluation work undertaken by Sarah Parcak in Egypt demonstrates the continued plunder of worked stone to build new funerary tombs  I am sure that those involved would call it recycling, and what gives us the right to argue? I mean why spend hours quarrying and shaping stone when so much is freely available?. So if the UNESCO/WHS process can provide no funds, infrastructure or protection then of what use is it?

     We need to return, once more, to Stonehenge, Evora and the Lake District. Although my argumant also applies equally well to many other places worldwide (Robben Island, Uluru-kata, Angkor Wat, The Great Wall, Machu Pichu, Tiacotalpan, Brun-a-Boinne and the Grand Canyon to name but a few). All these sites have one major thing in common. They are all, or have recently become, major tourist destinations. And as any budding economist will tell you the market law of supply and demand impacts directly on price, irrespective of raw material costs. So it should have come as no surpise that the beer that I paid 1 euro for in Beja became e2.15 in Evora. The pastry that I buy from a national supply chain (Greggs) costs £1 locally, but £3.95 at Stonehenge. I could go on, but if you are in the UK and plan to visit the Lake District then do so soon....the prices will be going up, if they haven't done so already!

     So, if UNESCO, cannot protect, or even support, WH Sites, then it can only be an advocate of tourism in the "global village" in which we live. In which case it is likely that where there is a clear monetary gain from becoming a WHS, then it would be foolish not to consider the actions that may be undertaken by National, Regional or Local Adminsitrations, and/or business conglomerates to ensure such a listing. Global events such as the Olympics (IOC) and the World Cup (FIFA) have been beset by charges of bribery and corruption over the past few years. 

     It would be unwise not to consider the implications of greed and prestige upon the selection process and naming of World Heritage Sites, both in the past and the future.Image result for bribery cartoon