Towards integrated natural and cultural heritage policy in Europe and beyond

Professor Rodney Harrison, Professor of Heritage Studies at UCL highlights the inter-relationship between natural and cultural heritage and the importance of coordinated policies to manage and conserve landscapes, such as the Council of Europe’s draft Guiding principles for an integrated culture, nature and landscape management, to which he has contributed.

This blog is based on Professor Harrison’s remarks at the 11th plenary session of the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee for Culture, Heritage and Landscape (CDCPP) in November 2022.

To many, the idea that natural and cultural heritage are distinct from one another and could be managed and sustained without reference to the interconnections between them would be a strange one. Indeed, such a perspective is now generally perceived to be an artefact of a colonial world view which reinforced notions of human exceptionalism to justify exploitative and extractive relations between humans and their environments, and indeed, hierarchical, unequal and exploitative relations between different groups of people who were perceived to be culturally and racially different from one another. Based on a such a view, throughout the twentieth century, an increasingly siloed set of professional fields developed to manage a range of natural and cultural ‘resources’–understood very much through the lens of their apparent values for human utilisation–and in doing so, in many cases have exacerbated rather than assisted with processes of environmental and cultural degradation.

Today, we live with the legacies of these developments, which in practice mean a fragmented system of international and national policies, laws and professional practices in which attempts to preserve one specific form of heritage may in fact hinder or at best trouble attempts to preserve another. In the light of the significant global and regional challenges affecting the environment and the driving forces affecting both cultural and natural heritage, including climate change, land use, urbanisation, and demographic changes, new and more effectively coordinated policies to manage and conserve landscapes–understood holistically as encompassing both natural and cultural heritage and the inter-relations between them–are urgently required.

The problems arising from such separation are familiar to many of the global majority, including many of the world’s Indigenous peoples, who have long called into question such an approach. Questions of the intersection of cultural heritage with environmental health, for example, are more keenly felt when one perceives the land itself to be a part of one’s identity, and the plants, animals and natural forces to be one’s kin. Similarly, we know that climate change impacts the world’s most disadvantaged peoples most disproportionately, highlighting the important connections between environmental and social justice.

A number of international non-government organisations have also recently drawn attention to these problems. Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), for example, noted in 2009 the need for closer integration of work on biological and cultural diversity conservation, leading to the development of a UNESCO–CBD Joint Programme between biological and cultural diversity which culminated in their 2014 Florence Declaration on the links between biological and cultural diversity. Similarly, the World Heritage Leadership (WHL) programme is a partnership between ICCROM, IUCN, and the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and the Environment, in collaboration with the World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS, which aims to draw attention to the links between nature and culture and help to improve conservation and management practices for both.

Despite this, the precise mechanisms by which the interdependencies and interactions between people, culture and nature might be effectively protected and managed have not been well articulated. The inter-relationship between human rights and the environment have been particularly highlighted as a strategic priority for the Council of Europe. Loss of biodiversity, climate change, extinction of species, pollution and the overall degradation of the earth´s ecosystems have a profound global impact on the enjoyment of human rights and require the widest possible cooperation.

As Europe’s leading human rights organisation, Council of Europe is uniquely placed to provide guidance on these issues, which is why I was delighted to be invited to provide an address to the 11th plenary session of their Steering Committee for Culture, Heritage and Landscape (CDCPP), and to have played an advisory role in the development of forthcoming Guiding principles for integrated culture, nature and landscape management. It is only through taking an integrated/holistic and cross-sectoral approach based on an understanding of natural diversity, cultural environment and climate as inter-related and understood in context, that we will be able to address the crises which equally threaten the cultural and natural environment.

Based in the Council of Europe’s human rights and participatory approach, and its Conventions in the field of culture, nature and landscape, the guiding principles introduce a number of relevant actions/tools that can be used at national, regional or local level, as appropriate, to strengthen the inseparable links between people, culture and nature and to better protect and expand cultural, natural and landscape diversity. These draw on a holistic/integrated approach in policymaking, management, research and practice with an emphasis on environmental justice and social and economic inequalities. In the light of the fact that the cultural and natural environment are to a large extent managed by the same measures and instruments (protected areas, conventions, etc), the aim of the guidelines is to highlight new ways of combining and/or integrating these measures to better protect and expand cultural, natural and landscape diversity, which is vital for sustainable development and the well-being of our societies.

Professor Rodney Harrison is Professor of Heritage Studies at UCL and academic programme lead for the new Heritage BA programme at UCL East. He was Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded Heritage Futures research programme, on which his contributions to the Council of Europe’s guiding principles for integrated culture, nature and landscape management builds.

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

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