Cultural Heritage Rights and Climate Change

By Andreas Pantazatos - 26 November 2015
Cultural Heritage Rights and Climate Change

This column by Andreas Pantazatos is part of Global Policy’s e-book, ‘Climate Change and Human Rights: The 2015 Paris Conference and the Task of Protecting People on a Warming Planet’, edited by Marcello Di Paola and Daanika Kamal. Contributions from academics and practitioners will be serialised on Global Policy until the e-book’s release in November 2015. Find out more here or join the debate on Twitter using #GPclimatechange.

Climate change is taking place now. The scientific community acknowledges that it will have a significant impact on future generations, but it is a surprising thought that climate change also has the power to challenge our relationship with the past. It is not so much that the new conditions of climate change set constraints on how many things remain from our past, but the idea that how we understand and deal with our past is filtered through the lens of climate change. Our relationship with our heritage is part of the new and unfamiliar picture of a future world that climate change portrays. Following from this, our right to heritage is, to some extent, ‘underwritten’ by the effects of climate change.

In this paper, I argue that climate change threatens our right to tangible and intangible heritage, if we continue to apply an ethic of stewardship that focuses primarily on the ‘caretaker approach’. I propose that we ought to shift from a thin understanding of stewardship to a thick understanding of it, one which stresses the relationship between human well-being and heritage, if our right to cultural heritage is to be safeguarded by climate change.

Climate change and our relationship to the past

UNESCO’s Policy Document on the Impacts of Climate Change on World Heritage Properties stipulates in the preamble that: ‘the composition and distribution of natural, human and cultural ecosystems are expected to change as species and populations respond to the new conditions created by climate change.’ This statement reminds us that we ought to be vigilant to the unforeseen dangers of climate change and draws attention to the fact that we should be prepared to respond to new conditions for the protection of cultural heritage. More importantly, it highlights a challenge we tend to forget while we argue for the reality of climate change. Namely, that although we refer to the future consequences of climate change, we overlook how climate change reshapes our relationship with the past.

Present generations are responsible for delivering the past to future generations, and they are called to establish whether that which is inherited from the past can be accommodated by the future. What can be delivered from past to future, and can be accommodated by the latter is not independent of climate change. If, for example, it is possible to know that certain geographical areas will be prone to floods, then in situ preservation of monuments might not be possible in those areas. More significantly, climate change challenges our understanding of the past, and thus how we are related to our heritage under new conditions. It urges us to understand what is significant about our heritage; that it is in transit, and our past cannot be fixed and should not be merely appreciated as a valuable source of knowledge for future generations. When heritage is seen to be in transit, it is transformed, collecting different layers of meanings and interpretations, and affirming different associations with the present. It is this framework of understanding that shapes our responsibilities about what heritage can be inherited to the future, how heritage can be delivered and whether future generations will be able to accommodate what is bequeathed to them. But how are we to understand the connection between climate change and right to cultural heritage?

Thin Stewardship and Right to Heritage

Before we became aware of the full impact of the occurrence of climate change, cultural heritage was considered primarily to be a non-renewable source, thus linking heritage implicitly to sustainability. Given that we value cultural heritage as a source of knowledge for future generations, we believe that it should be sustained, if by that one means that it should be preserved in some particular state. Following from this, one could argue that stewardship plays an instrumental role in sustainability. For instance, the World Heritage site of Qhapaq Ñan, Andean Road System should be taken care of adequately, if this site is to be sustained for future generations. The caretaker approach that is central to the understanding of stewardship is what leads to the assumption that stewardship is not only instrumentally related to sustainability, but is also tantamount to it. This is what I call a thin understanding of stewardship.

The core of the relationship between heritage stewardship and sustainability is rooted in the idea that heritage should be preserved in some particular state, which enables heritage to be sustained. If we accept this line of argument, our understanding of stewardship is rather limited. The particular state of heritage is a concern for the practice of stewardship. It cannot, however, be the chief concern because it does not allow room for further factors which should play an important role in how we interpret the idea of the particular state of heritage. What lies at the core of thin stewardship is the idea that heritage is a static finite resource, and it is possible to lock our past and what our past represents in episodic moments which are captured primarily by built structures and material remains from the past. Acting in the light of thin stewardship to respond to the climate change threat to cultural heritage thus has significant implications for human rights.

The idea of human rights to cultural heritage is not introduced separately in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is, however, implicitly addressed in Article 27 of the same Declaration according to which, ‘everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.’ Cultural heritage is a significant part of the cultural life of our communities and thus any destruction of it undermines our right to it. UNESCO’s Declaration Concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage (2003) with reference to monuments, affirms this idea stating that, ‘cultural heritage is an important component of the cultural identity of communities, groups and individuals, and or social cohesion, so that its intentional destruction may have adverse consequences on human dignity and human rights.’

Climate change is not considered to cause intentional destruction of heritage. However, it threatens our right to cultural heritage if our responses to the challenges it poses are shaped primarily by thin stewardship. I illustrate my point with an example from the World Heritage List. Qhapaq Ñan, Andean Road System was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2015. According to UNESCO, ‘the site is an extensive Inca communication, trade and defence network of roads covering 30,000 km. It ‘includes 273 component sites spread over more than 6,000 km that were selected to highlight the social, political, architectural and engineering achievements of the network, along with its associated infrastructure for trade, accommodation and storage, as well as sites of religious significance.’ The site is shared between six different countries; Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. More importantly, the site is still significant for local communities and it is in use for a variety of purposes.

Qhapaq Ñan is obviously vulnerable to climate change. For instance, rise in temperatures or high levels of rainfall may affect the structure of the road system. If we act in the light of thin stewardship to protect this site from climate change, we assume that there is a particular state of this site which should be protected. If what has been inherited from the past is a site which we craft in a particular state and we try to deliver it to future generations in the same way, climate change makes this almost impossible. The new conditions of climate change therefore challenge what can make a site to look fixed and static.

The idea of protecting a site in a particular state is dominated by the value of historical information to be derived from different parts of the site. So, only those who are well equipped and trained to interpret and understand the past are in good position to be stewards, such as heritage professionals and scientists. This implies that any knowledge local people have developed living with the site and the cultural practices associated, might not be taken into consideration. As a result, local people are deprived of their right to engage with their heritage, and their knowledge about how the site can be protected is overlooked.

I have argued that thin stewardship can be a constraint to our right to heritage if we follow its action-guiding framework to respond to the threat climate heritage poses to our cultural heritage. Thin stewardship is limited for two interrelated reasons. It does not take into consideration that heritage is in transit from past to future and thus it addresses only the question ‘what do we steward?’ without paying sufficient attention to the question ‘for whom do we steward heritage?’ However, if stewardship of cultural heritage fosters our right to cultural heritage, it should be addressing both questions. Right to heritage, like any question of rights, should address both whose right it is and for what. If we expand the action-guiding framework of stewardship to address both these questions, we shift from thin to thick stewardship.

Thick stewardship and climate change

Recall my example of Qhapaq Ñan. The practice of heritage stewardship is about saving traces of peoples’ lives in connection to the site, and their narratives as they can be interpreted via material and non- material traces. If we accept this understanding of stewardship, their heritage is not anymore something that belongs to the past, but it becomes alive and is able to be active in the present, addressing the idea that heritage is in transit, and has the ability to shape people’s lives who currently live on the site. The impact of the site on the present is what leads to an answer to the question ‘for whom do we steward?’

The caretaker approach to heritage is informed by the idea that stewardship is practiced for the sake of future generations, making it a plausible answer to the question. Given that the Qhapaq Ñan, Andean Road System has an impact on the present and plays a role in the lives of local people, heritage should be saved for them as well. We cannot give priority to ‘what we steward’ overlooking ‘for whom we steward’. If we do this, we simply do not allow all possible stakeholders to play their role as stewards and we seem to ignore the relation between heritage and people, which is reciprocal.

Current people located in the route of Qhapaq Ñan have been living there for a long time. Heritage, with its impact on their everyday life has enriched their lives and has contributed to their incessant living around this site. If local people and their heritage are so interconnected, they should be given more room to participate in the stewardship role, and should be encouraged to take an active part in the protection of that heritage. Otherwise, they may come to feel alienated from the landscapes and cultural traditions with which they associate their everyday lives. The account of thick stewardship I have briefly sketched expands the action-guiding framework of stewardship because it makes room for the lives of local communities and it stresses the significance of the relationship between communities and their heritage. It links heritage with human well-being.

Heritage plays a significant role here by consolidating and illuminating our relationships with past, present and future generations. For a thick account of stewardship, what drives our understanding of the past is the contribution heritage makes to human well-being. Heritage provides us with a sense-of-life narrative that is central to our understanding of ourselves, and our lives as a whole. It also contributes to our identity and how we perceive the world which, to a large extent, shapes our conduct in smaller and larger communities.

Let me return to my example of the Qhapaq Ñan. The account of thick stewardship that I discussed earlier makes room for non-experts to exercise their responsibilities for this site and accords local people with the platform to voice their preference about how the site is to be treated in the face of the threat of climate change. They are able to exercise their right to their heritage by getting actively involved in decision making for the present and the future of the site. And they exercise their right by applying their knowledge of living with Qhapaq Ñan, and taking into consideration the contribution the site has made to their lives. Thick stewardship cannot guarantee protection of the right to heritage from threats related to climate change. However, it does highlight that in order to safeguard our right to heritage we should pay attention to the relationship and the interaction between local people and their heritage. What sustains communities at certain places is their heritage, and the associations they have developed with it. What keeps heritage ‘alive’ is their link with people in the present.

Immigrants and refugees of the environmental crisis have not yet been the topic of debate in the media, but like other any other immigrant or refugee, they will be missing their heritage. To sustain their right to their heritage we should remember the contribution heritage has made to their lives and well-being, or so I have argued.


Andreas Pantazatos is Co-Director of the Centre for the Ethics of Cultural Heritage and teaches and researches normative and professional ethics at the Philosophy Department of Durham University. His interests are philosophy of cultural heritage and archaeology, ethics of stewardship and trusteeship, and epistemic injustice and museums, and ethics of heritage and immigration.

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