Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Kazakhstan falconry © National ICH Committee, Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan on the Road to Safeguarding ICH: Initial Steps in Inventory Making

The culture of the Kazakh people originates from the deepest history of Eurasia. Its roots appear in the creativity of the nomadic tribes who roamed Kazakh steppes long before the Kazakh nation was created. This culture originates from a nomadic lifestyle, and it reflects a harmonious model that combines different cultures, languages, and confessions. Nomads maintained cooperative relationships with settled populations, and this facilitated cultural exchanges that enriched the cultures of the region.

The Silk Road infiltrated the most fertile and densely populated regions of Central and Western Asia. Travelers of all kind caravanned on their east-west and west-east journeys bringing samples of their original culture, traditions, and customs. In ancient cities education and religious centers were created as were workshops for crafts. Furthermore, many traditions and master crafts were cross-generationally transmitted from father to son or from master to apprentice. These cross-cultural dialogues benefited the nomads, travelers, and permanent settlers, as the interactions helped shape a world view and encouraged tolerance and acceptance.

The Kazakhstanis, like most cultures, celebrate the key stages of human life (birth, circumcision, marriage, mourning, etc.) as well as auspicious periods, such as Nauryz. The contribution of ancient traditions and practices have left a strong imprint on language, religious beliefs and practices, gastronomy, manners, work, building, and creativity. Hence, the Kazakhstanis need tangible and intangible references to feel secure inside their social and cultural environment.

Therefore, it would be disastrous if these objects and practices were to disappear. At the same time, however, authorities formally had disregarded these social practices for almost two centuries.

The Ministry of Culture and Information of Kazakhstan and the local governments are responsible for safeguarding, inventorying, and promoting cultural heritage. The State Registry includes inscription on the national and local levels, thus combining the territorial principle with site classification (historical monuments, sites, and objects). The government adopts the State Registry of the National Heritage Objects and the State Registries of the Local Heritage Objects. Even though the registries already incorporate the petroglyphs of Tamgaly (included in the list of the World Cultural Heritage) and some sacred sites, the intangible heritage elements are not part of the registries yet.

The Kazakhstan Parliament ratified the 2003 Convention in December 2011, and as of now, it is the only legal document referring to the term intangible cultural heritage. However, more broadly, national legislation includes intangible heritage in a number of legal acts and regulations. Hence, ICH safeguarding policy did not started from zero, but rather it built upon an already established infrastructure. There was a policy for folk culture that focused on traditions, customs, knowledge, and techniques transmitted cross generationally.

There was academic ethnic and cultural research in traditional beliefs, oral and musical heritage, crafts, and applied arts. In addition, there was the long-term practice of musical competitions, festive events, and folklore performances. It also became clear that safeguarding intangible heritage is not confined to the cultural domain as it involves matters such as environmental management, intellectual property, formal and informal education, crafts, and tourism.

Disregarding these matters reduces inventories to be mere proclamations of cultural value, and the documentation becomes yet another archive for experts to consult. Therefore, it is essential for public policy to involve the producers and stakeholders of intangible heritage at every stage of the safeguarding process.

National legislation, such as the laws on culture and on safeguarding the historical and cultural heritage, provide the framework for protecting cultural heritage. Heritage can include both tangible and intangible elements. Movable heritage (artifacts and utensils), intangible heritage (practices, customs, and knowledge), and immovable heritage (buildings and landscapes) are often interrelated and reinforce one another.

Heritage encompasses those cultural expressions that people find sufficiently valuable to transmit. The legislation also highlights the importance of sharing responsibility for safeguarding among the public sector, community, and individuals.

The main challenge is to establish a legal mechanism that takes into account the dynamic and procedural nature of intangible cultural assets and that simultaneously contributes to evaluating and promoting those assets for the benefit of stakeholders and of society in general. Therefore, cultural authorities are not limited to a supervisory role in implementing laws, but rather exist as important partners for supporting groups and cultural heritage communities, which enables these groups and communities to exert their right to produce and protect cultural objects.

After joining the Convention, the Kazakhstan National Commission for UNESCO broadly pursued a two-track policy. Already in December 2011, the Chairman of the National Commission launched consultations on drawing up a long-term ICH policy with the Office of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan and relevant national cultural ministries. This process resulted in the draft Concept on Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Kazakhstan, a document with an analysis of existing and past safeguarding efforts as well as the policy framework to align national heritage programs to the Convention.

The Secretary-General of the National Commission for UNESCO and ISESCO convened two meetings in February and March 2012 on ICH inventorying and establishing the National ICH Committee. The meetings included government and non-government cultural experts, academics, and artisans. The meetings resulted in drafting a provisional intangible heritage list for nomination to the UNESCO lists (four elements) and an outline of the regulations and criteria for ICH selection.

Kazakhstan submitted four nominations for the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity:

  • Nauryz Celebration (joining an existing multinational nomination)
  • Falconry (joining an existing multinational nomination)
  • Kara Zhorga Folk Dance (submitted for possible inscription in 2013)
  • Orteke Puppet Performance (submitted for possible inscription in 2013)

The National ICH Committee introduced an inventory of Kazakhstani ICH. The regulations contain the criteria and procedures for entering an element on this inventory. The regulations also describe the procedures for nominating an element included in this inventory for the Representative List. With this inventory, the National ICH Committee wants to achieve more than a list of Kazakhstan ICH, the committee wants the inventory to provide insight into

  • the heritage communities involved with the ICH;
  • the measures taken by the heritage community to safeguard the ICH, transmit it to future generations, and increase societal support for the ICH; and
  • the heritage experts involved with the heritage community, who assist and support the community in ICH safeguarding.

Quality checks have been built into the regulations. The regulations recommend that the cultural heritage community cooperates with academic and creative organizations, which could include museums, cultural archives institutions, heritage libraries, and many others, even NGOs and local authorities with a cultural heritage policy.

This cooperation should enhance the heritage reflex of the cultural heritage community and help design measures to safeguard the ICH element.

The first five-day training workshop on implementing the 2003 Convention was organized in April 2012 in Astana. About thirty representatives from the government agencies, leading universities, the ICH National Committee, and the UNESCO Observatory on Central Asia as well as ICH bearers—artisans, musicians, storytellers, and representatives from youth NGOs—took part in the training.

Another component of quality control is the Technical Expert’s Committee, an advisory body established by the National Commission for UNESCO. This committee of experts checks the submissions against the criteria and examines the quality of a nomination dossier. The committee indicates the areas for file improvement, if necessary, and advises the National Commission whether to include an element on the national ICH List. By September 2012, the committee included eighteen ICH elements to the Provisional National Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Kazakhstan:

  • Oral Traditions and Expressions (two elements)
  • Performing Arts (nine elements)
  • Social Practices, Rituals and Festive Events (one element)
  • Knowledge and Practices Concerning Nature and the Universe (one element)
  • Traditional Craftsmanship (five elements)

Government control also raises questions about the qualifications of those implementing the ICH Convention. ICH is a matter of cultural particularity and nuance. Properly researching, documenting, understanding, and presenting local cultural traditions requires adequate linguistic skills, superior levels of background training in cultural fields such as ethnology, linguistics, ethnomusicology, folklore, and the ethno-sciences. It often anticipates advanced knowledge of various scientific and technical disciplines. Therefore, there is a definite need for continual training and information sharing through UNESCO, ICHCAP, and other organizations. Through international collaboration, Kazakhstan and other nations of the Asia-Pacific region can continue to implement proper ICH safeguarding measures.