HISTORIC URBAN LANDSCAPES IN THE INDIAN OCEAN WATERS: Challenges of urban heritage custodianship for the Comoros, Maldives, Mauritius, Mayotte, Réunion, and Seychelles


The waters of the Indian Ocean are perhaps the last venue one would expect urban heritage and management issues to be prevalent. Comprising the independent nations of the Maldives, Mauritius, Comoros, and Seychelles as well as the French external Departments of Mayotte and Reunion, they are, in the majority, parts of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) communities now recognized by UNESCO (2018a, 2018b) (Figure 36.1). SIDS are characterized by a high level of social, economic and environmental vulnerability and constraints (Lamy-Giner 2011; Paratian 1992). They are economically and functionally insular, and are characterized by focused development that revolve around generic but a limited set of industries, tourism being one of the most prominent.

These six communities host significant and rapidly burgeoning urban centres rich in multi-cultural issues (Boswell 2008), various colonial and post-independence legacies, culturally diverse governance structures, and natural values-influenced geo-heritage themes. But they are also facing immediate and major issues of climate change, urbanization (Grydehoj et al. 2015), tourism (Naumov 2014), infrastructural deterioration and retrofitting, and ill-funded internal governance policies that are challenging their respective urban heritage. This chapter surveys this physical, economic and governance landscape, including existing cultural heritage recognitions, the conservation and management dilemmas, and challenges confronting the urban landscapes of each nation and Department, respectively. Particular attention is paid to the urban settlements of Male, Port Louis, Moroni, Victoria, Mamoudzou and Saint-Denis that are the respective capitals and prefectures (administrative capitals) of these nations and Departments. The chapter offers a collective voice from a little heard of sector of the Asia-Pacific region that explains the challenges these communities are confronting in urban heritage identification, assessment, conservation and management.




Figure 36.1 Locations of the Maldives, Comoros, and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

Source: Zaheer Allam and David Jones

Looking for urban heritage in the Indian Ocean waters

Although these islands share similar geographical relationships with the Indian Ocean waters, each of them shows conspicuous and distinct cultural nuances in their values and urban landscapes. This is predominately due to their different colonization histories and varied cultural exposures to European and Afro-Asian values (Boswell 2008; Krieger 2004; Royle 1997). Despite this, the islands share the same problems including the pollution of surface and potable water (Allam and Jones 2018), poor management of groundwater resources, deterioration of aquatic biodiversity and environmental resources (MMAIFS 2017), the rapid disappearance of biodiversity (Armitage et al. 2017; Mauritius Ministry of Agro-Industry and Food Security 2017), subtle urban heat island effects (Allam and Elahee 2014), urbanization transformations little informed by quality urban planning and climate change responsiveness (Allam and Jones 2018; Mauree 2018; Mauree and Geneletti 2017), and attempts to integrate nature conservation with spatial planning (Hammond et al. 2015; Lagabrielle et al. 2011; Mauritius 2017; SPA 2018), all raising questions about their future governance and environmental directions that lack island-relevant sustainable strategies (Gaeten and Allam 2017; van Oers and Roders 2014).

While the region possesses similar pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial histories waxed by slavery, religious social engineering, private entrepreneurship, and piracy, they also share similar ecological, social, economic and political tensions informed by their respective histories but hampered by their spatial and population scales and limited economic bases (Pearce 2015). Their cultural heritage is collectively borne from cross-Ocean diaspora migrations resulting in unique Créole cultural populations (Bissell 2007; Boswell 2008; Choppy 2017) and with 1800s French- and English-inspired colonial architectural styles (La Réunion 2018), albeit mediated by occasional appreciations of the harshness of tropical environments. These isolated communities struggle to sustain viable economies, constantly aspire for development and effective spatial planning (Mauree 2018), seek to protect key natural assets as part of the global ecosystem while prioritizing tourism exploitation at the same time as confronting climate change (Mauritius 2017; Naumov 2014; Nunkoo and Ramkissoon 2010). The latter includes erratic changes in temperatures and unseasonal tropical deluges, rising sea levels and tidal variations that escalate during tsunami incidents, and the uncertainty of novel ecosystems transformations of their natural habitat assets (Pearce 2015; UNFCCC 2005).

UNESCO has been active in supporting SIDS in their efforts to achieve sustainable development and to address their challenges, resulting in the adoption of the SIDS Action Plan (2016—2021), that

addresses the following five priority areas within UNESCO’s mandate: 1) Enhancing island capacities to achieve sustainable development through education and the reinforcement of human and institutional capacities; 2) Enhancing SIDS resilience and the sustainability of human interactions with ecological, freshwater and ocean systems; 3) Supporting SIDS in the management of social transformations and the promotion of social inclusion and social justice; 4) Preserving tangible and intangible cultural heritage and promoting culture for island sustainable development; and 5) Increasing connectivity, information management and knowledge-sharing.

(UNESCO 2018b)

Priority 4, that embraces cultural heritage, seeks to scaffold assistance to enable and ‘address sustainable development as to: (1) Culture for sustainable development; (2) Cultural and natural heritage; (3) Living heritage and cultural industries; and (4) Sustainable tourism’ (UNESCO 2018b). Isolation and lack of internal introspectivity due to the paucity of human and economic resources have resulted in little attention to developing policies to address sustainability and climate change adaptation futures. Additionally, respective urban heritages are under threat of major deterioration because they are little perceived as being essential for each island’s future. Thus, the UNESCO sponsored SIDS network is seeking to enable a cohesive and common voice from these communities.

But, despite this, the topic of UNESCO’s Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape (UNESCO 2011) has been little discussed among these islands authorities. The reason is perhaps the lack of cultural heritage expertise maturity in the islands but also the perspective that the islands lack the ‘urban landscapes’ implied in the Recommendation’s scope.

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