Navigating urban heritage in the Indian Ocean waters

In terms of cultural heritage, UNESCO, through its SIDS initiative, has adopted various policies and commenced offering technical assistance and infrastructure, of which the The Mauritius Strategy for the Further Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of SIDS (UNESCO 2005) sets forth an agreed agenda. Cultural heritage is specifically narrated in Chapter XIX, Para 82 of the Mauritius Strategy. Unfortunately, while Paragraph 82 of the Mauritius Strategy holistically articulates a policy commitment to ‘cultural heritage’, the on-ground execution of this Paragraph has largely involved an emphasis upon the cultural heritage of existing and prospective World Heritage properties of which the urban fabric and any historic districts within Male, Port Louis, Moroni, Victoria, Mamoudzou and Saint-Denis is not a priority by the respective nation and Department. Of the existing World Heritage Listed properties and Tentative World Heritage nominated properties, the only properties possessing eligibility for one or more of the six cultural heritage criteria are the ‘Coral Stone Mosques of Maldives’, the ‘Mission Ruins of Venn’s Town’ on Seychelles, ‘Le Morne Cultural Landscape’ on Mauritius, and the ‘Aapravasi Ghat’ on Mauritius. Only the Coral Stone Mosques of Maldives and the Aapravasi Ghat in Port Louis (‘where the modem indentured labour diaspora began’; UNESCO 2006) have any association to urban heritage, albeit limited because they are edifice-related properties and are not districts or precincts.

The shared historical colonial experience is the linking thread among these islands despite the geographical distances between them (Kumar 2014, 2017). Their colonial histories are, predominantly, what informed their respective urban and cultural heritage within their different landscapes and geographical characteristics. Their historic urban settlements are characterized by colonial era street patterns and spatial urban planning philosophies, clutching upon the edges of small ports. This urban and cultural heritage is, however, under increasing threat from both natural causes and anthropogenic interventions (Harrison and Hitchcock 2005; Scheyvens and Momsen 2008). The built fabric of these urban settlements is physically deteriorating rapidly due to their tropical climates, the nature and age of their colonial architectural styles and construction technologies (Broeze 1997; Royle 1997). The limited colonial-era sewerage, potable water and storm water management and underground infrastructure in these settlements never envisaged the current urban densities and population growth (Allam and Jones 2018). They are experiencing dramatic rural-to-urban migrations and urban sprawl (Grydehoj et al. 2015), their wider urban and peri-urban spheres are witnessing attempts to deflect urban pressures by proposing new settlements (Rivière et al. 2013; SPA 2018; Vuksanovic 2008) or embracing ‘smart city’ policies (Allam 2018) due to the environmental consequences of these pressures (Conruyt et al. 2013; Hammond et al. 2015; Lestrelin et al. 2017; Mauree and Geneletti 2017). Each settlement is now lethargically responding to these issues in an ad hoc manner, accordingly to the level of incident damage arising from events like tsunamis or flash flooding or increase saline levels in potable water sources, to the onslaught of unseasonal and erratic climate change effects.

While heritage planning and management on these islands usually operates within respective frameworks of statutes, ordinances and regulations (Kalman 2014), balancing tight national and Departmental budgets between mitigating climate change impacts and enabling economic development has been resulting in the abandonment of urban heritage conservation assets and policies. Social, political, and economic vicissitudes that have occurred in the recent years have compelled many of these islands to review their approach to economic policies to the disadvantage of urban conservation and development. Urban heritage and urban landscape are little discussed within these nations and Departments. Academic and professional concerns about the urban heritage of these settlements is in its infancy (Boswell 2008; Mlanao 2017; Nouschi 2011; Waltz and Gutpa 2011).

These nations and Departments have strived for their cultural heritage resources to be included in the World Heritage List, often as a vehicle to strengthening their economic tourism profile (Baldaccino 2012; Perkins 2012). Such endeavours have also been motivated by the need for the conservation of cultural heritage as embodying the very identity of these insular nations (Salm 1983; Swift 2007). Most of these islands lack resources to address their current challenges while others lack the political will to have their cultural heritage and biodiversity being inscribed as World Heritage properties (Brown and Cave 2010). This is despite UNESCO’s presence in seeking to ensure that their social, cultural and economic programmes are felt positively in the islands through sustainable conservation initiatives, in addition to the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) supporting the islands in past and prospective nominations to the World Heritage List (Akagawa and Sirisrisak 2008). ICOMOS and National Trust partnerships, within the framework of the Japanese Funds-in-Trust project ‘Capacity Building to Support the Conservation of World Heritage Sites and Enhance Sustainable Development of Local Communities in Small Island Developing States (SIDS)’ has been enabling heritage capacity building workshops for Indian Ocean SIDS to enhance their capacities to integrate World Heritage site management within the sustainable development of local communities. ICOMOS responds only to requests made by international bodies, delegates, and other local heritage organizations to take actions.

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