Roads or ruins? The politics of cultural preservation

Sunday 30 October, 1.45pm until 3.15pm, Students' Union

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) was formed in 1946, in the aftermath of the Second World War, on the belief that a lasting peace depended on educational, scientific, and cultural relations between nations as well as political and economic ones. In 1972, following the flooding of Venice and Florence, and with the temples at Abu Simbels in similar danger, UNESCO published its ‘Convention concerning the Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage’. Its guiding principle is that the international community has a duty to help conserve the world’s cultural and natural heritage for future generations. Accordingly, UNESCO established a list of World Heritage Sites of outstanding universal cultural or natural value. There are currently 911 sites on the list, in 151 countries.

Nevertheless, World Heritage status is not always welcomed by those directly affected. In Djenne in Mali, residents long to replace their 150-year-old mud-brick houses with modern homes, but their proximity to the UNESCO-listed Great Mosque, the largest mud-brick structure in the world, means any reconstruction of local housing cannot substantially alter the original. Similar conflicts exist on the Island of St Louis in Senegal, the island of Lamu in Kenya, and the entire island of Mozambique off the coast of the nation by the same name. While UNESCO listing may be good for tourism, residents complain of being stuck in a museum. It is increasingly common for cultural heritage to be used as a reason to block or halt developmental projects such as dams and mines. In Rosia Montana in Romania, plans to open Europe’s largest gold deposit, with an estimated 10 million ounces, worth more than $12 billion at today’s price, is under threat from NGOs seeking world heritage status for settlements dating from Roman times. This is despite overwhelming local support for the mine, in an area devastated by long-term industrial decline and recent economic contraction. How far should the preservation of the past be allowed to impede future development?

One of the ironies of archaeology is that it is often development itself that reveals archaeological treasures in the process of disturbing the landscapes that contain them. Archaeologists in China were able to improve vastly their understanding of human history - the origins of human beings, the transition to agriculture, the development of complex societies and writing systems – thanks to the disruption caused by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Might a compromise be possible between conservation and development? Or if we must choose between them, who should decide which comes first?

Gideon Amos
architect and planner; editor, Connecting England: a programme for regional development

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Jules Lubbock
professor of art history, University of Essex; author, Tyranny of Taste: politics of British architecture and design, 1550-1960

Dennis Rodwell
consultant architect-planner; author, Conservation and Sustainability in Historic Cities

Kirk Leech
interim director, European Animal Research Campaign Centre; government affairs, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry

Produced by
Kirk Leech interim director, European Animal Research Campaign Centre; government affairs, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry
Recommended readings
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