Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Impact of UNESCO Designation in Djenné, Mali

A recent episode of The Current on CBC radio examined the impact of The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on communities that are designated World Heritage Sites. The Current looked specifically at the designation of Dejenne. The episode looks at the contrast between preservation concerns and the needs of the people who live in the mud huts of Djenné.

The city of Djenné has existed since around 200-250 B.C., two thousand of the original mud based houses still exist today. The 'old town' is an example of the development from pre-Islamic civilization to a trading center, Sudanese-style architecture, and the well known Great Mosque. The Great Mosque and the other designated heritage buildings are all built from sun baked mud bricks. The visual appearance is stunning. However mud based bricks have inherent problems, especially in a region which frequently suffers from flooding.

The most prominent theme of the Current segment was the disconnect between UNESCO and some of the government bodies which agree to UNESCO designation. UNESCO designates heritage sites but it is not directly involved with the general upkeep and preservation of heritage sites. However, UNESCO does provide governing and preservation guidelines and governments agree to these guidelines when they agree to designation.

I haven't previously put a lot of thought into how UNESCO sites are maintained and the potential problems which can arise from designation. There seems to be a clash between the desire of UNESCO to preserve heritage and the rise of tourism which comes from UNESCO designation. A number of countries see UNESCO designation as an instant way to increase tourism and revenue. Since the Great Mosque in Djenné was designated, millions of dollars have went into it's upkeep and the city has also greatly benefited from an influx of tourism dollars. However, an influx of people visiting a heritage site has the potential to cause damage to the site itself. Emissions from motor vehicles, human contact, and careless but well intentioned visitors increase the risk of deteriorating heritage value.

There needs to be a balance between preservation, tourism, and accommodating the people who live in a UNESCO site. There are so many factors and parties involved that pleasing everyone without compromise is somewhat unrealistic. Places being considered for UNESCO or other heritage designation need to look at the concerns of all of the people that will be impacted by designation and how heritage can be preserved while still maintaining an acceptable standard of living.

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