Supporters of Africa’s cultural and natural heritage recently had reason to celebrate. At the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in September, UNESCO announced that five new locations have joined the list of World Heritage Sites, bringing the total in sub-Saharan Africa to over 100 for the first time. .
Rwanda’s first two World Heritage Sites have been named among 42 new entries worldwide. One, Nyungwe National Park, has a varied topography including forests and peat bogs, and is home to the Eastern Chimpanzee, Golden Monkey and other endemic species. The other is a collection of sites in Nyamata, Murambi, Gisozi and Bisesero, commemorating the 1994 genocide targeting the Tutsi population in Rwanda.
215,000-hectare (531,000-acre) in Ethiopia Bale Mountains National Park, which includes the continent’s largest afro-alpine habitat, and Gedeo Cultural Landscape, home to 250,000 indigenous Gedeo people in the Eastern Highlands, are also inscribed on the World Heritage list, with the Forest Massif of Odzala-Kokoua in the Republic of Congo, an important habitat for forest elephants in the region.
But that good news is tempered by the understanding that the continent still has a long way to go when it comes to recognizing its heritage. Sub-Saharan Africa, home to 1.2 billion people, has less than 10% of the sites listed. In addition, Africa has a higher percentage of World Heritage sites at risk than any other continent, and 11 countries (Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eswatini, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sao Tome and Principe , Sierra Leone, Somalia and South Sudan) does not have a single entry on the list.
GR Vande Weghe/Courtesy UNESCO
Plants in Rwasenkoko, Nyungwe National Park, one or two new UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Rwanda.
A memorial site for the 1994 genocide in Gisozi, Rwanda.
Currently there are 1,199 World Heritage sites, which benefit from conservation agreements and tourism that come with that status. UNESCO has listed 103 of the sites in the African region, excluding Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia – countries with a total of 42 World Heritage Sites – which are included in UNESCO in the Arab States region.
To qualify, a site must have “outstanding universal value” and meet at least one of 10 criteria, such as representing “a masterpiece of human creative genius,” with ” superlative natural phenomenon,” or has “unique testimony to a cultural tradition. or to a civilization living or lost.” Africa is not lacking in this. So why the historical underrepresentation?
Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of World Heritage, says several factors contributed. One is that some countries are slow to ratify the 1972 World Heritage convention, which allows them to submit applications for World Heritage status. (Somalia, for example, The convention was only approved in 2020.) Another factor is a historical lack of expertise and capacity in some countries to identify and nominate future sites, he said.
There is also no avoiding the fact that the nomination process can be long and expensive. It takes at least two years for a site to go from nomination to inscription on the World Heritage list, UNESCO says, and may require resources that some countries may not have at their disposal. .
Educational Pictures/Universal Pictures Group/Getty
An elephant in the African forest in Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Republic of Congo. The park, a new UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a fortress for animals.
To address these challenges, UNESCO announced “Priority Africa,” a plan to promote recognition and conservation across the continent between now and 2029.
“This new strategy brings a new momentum,” said Eloundou Assomo, pointing to previous global initiatives to balance the World Heritage list, dating back to 1994.
“By 2025, we will ensure that the majority of African countries that do not have a World Heritage Site at least begin to prepare a nomination dossier,” he said, adding that he hoped that every African country that currently there is no site in the list. there was one at the end of the decade.
The World Heritage director – from Cameroon, and the first African to hold the position – says there are more local resources and expertise than ever before to help maintain heritage sites. UNESCO is also collaborating with the African World Heritage Fund on a mentorship program to train professionals from a “younger generation, so they can become experts and caretakers of tomorrow,” said Eloundou Assomo.
Another objective of the strategy is to work to reduce the number of African sites listed as “World Heritage in Danger.” Human conflict and natural disasters, urban development, poaching, pollution and uncontrolled tourism all pose threats, says UNESCO.
Fifteen places in UNESCO’s Africa tally listed as endangered and UNESCO wants to work with its partners to halve the number by 2029.
In positive news, a site in Uganda, the 19th century Tombs of the Buganda Kings at Kasubi, in Kampala, were recently removed from the danger list after a 13-year effort to restore their native architecture following a fire that gutted the grave in 2010.
Yonas Beyene/Courtesy UNESCO
Eloundou Assomo says that even in the most challenging circumstances, “it is most important to support African countries in their effort (to preserve their heritage).”
“World heritage is considered part of the soul of nations and the soul of communities,” said Eloundou Assomo. “Their destruction is the loss of an identity.”
“If people protect (heritage sites), it will help people to rebuild themselves… It is up to them to identify them; because they know their past, they can build for the future,” he added.
The six-year mission from UNESCO is just a blink of an eye for some of the continent’s oldest and most revered locations. Although it is up to individual countries to submit applications for inclusion in the list, the director left one place he would like to see written about in the future: the Bissagos Islands. The archipelago off the coast of Guinea-Bissau is not the only one biodiversity hotspot, it is also home to a matriarchal society, and will be the country’s first World Heritage Site.
Eloundou Assomo stressed that countries should look broadly at what they want to submit to UNESCO for consideration.
“You don’t have to have an Eiffel Tower (to) propose a World Heritage Site,” he said. “It’s not just the monumental ones – there are different sites everywhere in the world that have the potential to join the list.”