Francesco Bandarin
Assistant Director-General for Culture a.i., UNESCO

The concept of sustainable development is at the heart of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which recognizes in its preamble the importance of the intangible cultural heritage as a mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development. Furthermore, Article 2.1 of the Convention, dedicated to the definition of intangible cultural heritage, stipulates that consideration will be given solely to such intangible cultural heritage as is compatible with existing international human rights instruments as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups, and individuals, and of sustainable development.

In recent years, a recurrent question has been raised in the academic world and by the governing bodies of the Convention: How can the contribution of intangible cultural heritage to sustainable development be better understood and, therefore, more broadly recognized? An answer to this fundamental question lies in UNESCO’s Operational Directives for the Implementation of the Convention, where concepts of sustainability and sustainable development have been integrated. In 2012 ICHCAP provided a significant contribution to this debate through the organization of an international conference on the “Creative Value of Intangible Cultural Heritage for Sustainable Development,” during which participants discussed future developments and possible linkages between the safeguarding of living heritage and sustainable development.

Recently, as part of UNESCO’s broader effort to integrate culture in the international sustainable development agenda, a new chapter of the Operational Directives on safeguarding intangible cultural heritage and fostering sustainable development at the national level has been adopted by the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage at its tenth session, in 2015. This new chapter, expected to be adopted by the General Assembly of States Parties to the 2003 Convention during its next session in May/June 2016, builds on the recent adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by the United Nations General Assembly at its 70th session, which constitutes a plan of action consisting of seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, nine of which fully integrate the role of culture in the three dimensions of sustainable development—economic, social, and environmental. These highly interdependent spheres of action inform development pathways at all levels and respect the three fundamental principles of human rights, equality, and sustainability. The outcome document acknowledges “the natural and cultural diversity of the world and recognize[s] that all cultures and civilizations can contribute to, and are crucial enablers of, sustainable development” and that “sustainable development cannot be realized without peace and security.”

Belgium: Modern shrimp fishing nets © Dirk Van Hove, Gemeente Koksijde Paardenvissers 02 2007, with permission of UNESCO

The new Chapter VI of the Operational Directives will demonstrate how the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage is conducive to the improvement of the social and cultural wellbeing of communities, as well as the mobilization of innovative and culturally appropriate responses to various development challenges.

This chapter attempts to advise States Party in a complete and concrete way on measures they can implement to give real effect and substance to the Convention’s potential as a tool for pursuing sustainable development. It aims, in particular, to encourage States Party to take into account the linkages between safeguarding intangible cultural heritage and sustainable development while providing them with guidance for better integrating the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage in the formulation and implementation of national development policies and strategies. In this regard, it facilitates the adoption of culturally sensitive policies to recognize and promote the dynamic nature of living traditions in both urban and rural contexts, allowing residents to engage in a meaningful cultural life while expressing their cultural identities. The new chapter encourages a participatory approach and aims to assist various types of stakeholders in preventing and mitigating excessive actions that might endanger the viability of living heritage.

In line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, notably the main entry point for culture under Goal 11, “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” and Target 11.4 “Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage” in particular, the new chapter effectively reflects the interrelation of the three dimensions of sustainable development.

In an increasingly urbanized world, cities, as catalysts for social, cultural, and economic innovation, represent a key platform for sustainable development. However, they are also a stage for conflicts, discrimination, exclusion, and inequality.

In an urban context, more than any other, the various practices, representations, and expressions of intangible cultural heritage have the power to promote dialogue and mutual understanding, enhance cohesion, strengthen resilience, and empower individuals and communities to rebuild their societies after disaster and revitalize their public and cultural life. Safeguarding intangible cultural heritage can contribute to peace and security—the fundamental prerequisites for sustainable development, allowing communities, states, and all development actors to pursue pathways toward inclusive participation, dispute prevention or resolution, peace building, and stability.

Furthermore, inclusive social development cannot be achieved without sustainable food security, quality health care, access to clean water and sanitation, quality education for all, inclusive social protection systems, and gender equality. Human societies have constantly developed and adapted their intangible cultural heritage, including knowledge and practices concerning nature as well as social practices, to address fundamental needs and social issues. Traditional health practices, food ways, water management practices, social gatherings, celebrations, and knowledge transmission systems play essential roles for communities to achieve inclusive social development.

Intangible cultural heritage also has an essential role to play with regard to environmental sustainability. Traditional knowledge, values, and practices accumulated and renewed across generations as part of intangible cultural heritage have guided human societies in their interactions with the surrounding natural environment for millennia. Today, the contribution of intangible cultural heritage to environmental sustainability is recognized in many fields such as biodiversity conservation, sustainable natural resource management, and natural disaster preparedness and response. The body of knowledge, values, and practices of intangible cultural heritage related to the environment has the capacity to evolve and adapt for more sustainable use of natural resources, enabling communities to better face natural disasters and the challenges of climate change.

As for the economic dimension, sustainable patterns of production and consumption depend on stable, inclusive, and equitable growth. Inclusive economic development focuses not only on those living in poverty but also other vulnerable groups not involved in any economic activity. Reducing poverty and inequality, ensuring greater access to employment and welfare protection, and promoting resource efficient low-carbon economic growth is necessary. Intangible cultural heritage constitutes an important asset for this transformative change as a driving force for economic development encompassing a diverse range of activities of monetary and non-monetary value, which can help strengthen local economies in particular. Living heritage can also serve as an important source of innovation in the face of change and help achieve inclusive economic development at the local and international level.

Once again UNESCO and its institutional partners, including Category 2 Centers, have a crucial role to play in promoting a cultural approach to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and to increase recognition of the importance of safeguarding our living heritage to steer our future towards a path of sustainability.