Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Women's sitting dance in Yap © Stefan Krause

ICH Value and Sustainable Social Development

In the Federated States of Micronesia, UNESCO’s ICH program is off to a great start in Yap—the state chosen to be the first in the FSM to embrace the opportunity. We recently hosted our first UNESCO ICH workshop, which was well attended and promoted throughout the state. And it is evident that outside recognition of the value of Yapese ICH has energized local interest in talking about cultural heritage as an asset worthy of protection. From the beginning, it has been highlighted that the management of Yapese ICH must be a collective effort—with UNESCO and other outside facilitators such as me only being here to provide technical and material support when necessary.

By insisting that ICH be managed at a local level, Yapese citizens are taking ownership of the process and developing approaches to managing ICH on their own terms. Indeed, they are also redefining ICH in the process—articulating its value in ways that can help them deal with current demands. One such way some are doing this is by discussing strategies to use the term ICH as a focal concept for sustainable development on the island. The neighboring Republic of Palau has recently been championing their natural marine and terrestrial environments as a national treasure that should be used to define their niche in the international tourism market. Seeing the success of this approach, some in Yap think that ICH is the perfect symbol to appropriate and use in promoting their proud heritage to the world and to generate a more focused local effort to preserve elements of their ICH that may be at risk.

That many in Yap have begun to internalize the concept of ICH and incorporate it into their contemporary discourse should come as no surprise. Yap already has a famously strong tradition of celebrating and institutionalizing cultural preservation. Villages show their commitment to their heritage, for instance, by practicing dances and other performances for months on end ahead of Yap Day, an almost half-century annual tradition in the state where cultural traditions are kept alive by being showcased for locals and visitors alike. Canoe Fest and Homecoming are more recently organized annual celebrations that have also become multiday platforms during which cultural heritage takes centre stage. All these local institutions are wonderful examples of how ICH can indeed be valuable to sustainable social development. And with the concentrated efforts to manage ICH that UNESCO has begun supporting, Yapese communities will now also be better equipped with the tools and resources to identify and document elements of their ICH that may not be showcased during these events, but are nonetheless just as valuable to the communities in which they endure.

Witnessing the efforts in Yap, I offer the argument that as advisors on ICH, it is not just the elements of culture that we should value and be concerned with but also the processes that bring together our shared daily practices, understandings, and expressions into what we commonly call a cultural identity. This may seem obvious since we are, after all, dealing with intangible cultural heritage. But even when conceptualizing ICH as elements that fit within certain domains, we should keep in mind the living, fluid nature of these cultural expressions so that we do not somehow fossilize their form or significance through the act of objectification. Acknowledging that ICH changes with the times allows us to better recognize the individual agency each member of a culture has in its maintenance and transmission. It also reminds us that it is the people who matter most, not the culture itself.

Privileging people and process this way, we see the importance of grounding ICH programs in the local processes that govern cultural practice and transmission, for it is these generative processes we hope to support—processes necessary to achieve the goal of sustainable social development. And it is indeed wonderful that UNESCO has placed a priority on empowering communities with control over the program’s implementation as well as encouraging an open, fully participatory approach. Inclusive collaboration democratizes the process, encourages healthy participation, and leads to a more sustained engagement with ICH safeguarding and preservation activities into the future.

UNESCO’s help, along with assistance from the U.S. National Park Service and the FSM national government have affirmed to the Yapese what they already know—that their ICH is valuable. What this outside recognition has also done, however, is generate a more rigorous and reflexive discourse within Yap on how their heritage can best be managed now that they know they will have some support. And lastly, the realization that the communities have total control over the process has helped tremendously in ensuring that the efforts in Yap will be both successful and sustainable.