Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Rice fields in western India. Sustainable use of resources is a common and important element of ICH in Asia-Pacific. Food security relies on it being applied as widely as possible. (Photo by R. Goswami)

At Home and Abroad: How Civil Society’s Local Work Helps Global ICH Objectives

Why is it relevant for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) over the long term that non-government and community-based organizations apply what they do locally to needs globally? Already, several years before the UNESCO 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage is ten years old, our ICH community must address needs and concepts that it is still somewhat unfamiliar with.

These are, for example, national human development goals, pathways to sustainable development, cultural economics, education for sustainable development, a green economy, ecological literacy, cultural ecosystems, and fair livelihoods. This list is not an exhaustive one, for the needs of developing societies and societies that are making the transition to lower intensities of consumption are being redefined both economically and culturally. This is why the lessons learned locally in the field by NGOs and civil societies active in the ICH sector are a source of guidance globally.

Institutions in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere are finding that working together as a network will become the norm, as there is a growing need for multidisciplinary approaches and methods. For training, research, and communication, there will be a need to frame new curricula that can keep pace with global change. For these links and exchanges to work best, an understanding of the policy and economic spaces within which ICH finds itself is imperative.

How could these be fostered? As national and regional governments and administrations begin to build sustainable development into their long-term goals, they will increasingly include cultural elements and systems into their framework. Time and again, the single most important lesson that responsible fieldwork and sensitive program assessments offers is that our ICH community must be able to respond and react to these new tasks.

In the Asia-Pacific region, we are faced with not one, but two simultaneous demands. We must further the work and mechanisms of the 2003 Convention. We must also link the recognition of the many forms of ICH learning and praxis with the importance of sustainable development. To do both will require accelerated and multidisciplinary learning and reflection. This is a tall order. The varied community of ICH practitioners and heirs, the scholars and academics who study and document their lives and work, and the administrators and planners who strive to bring them the benefits of development will all be stretched to capacity.

For many NGOs whose work is directly in ICH or has an intangible cultural aspect, the evidence from partner organizations and from communities has become stronger over the last few years. The effects of climate change have come into the foreground; the focus on improving the environment in cities and rural districts is just as important; the poor are often the most vulnerable; working towards ‘green growth’ will be the new norm; and pursuing sustainable development using ICH tools and supporting traditional knowledge is emerging as a long-term program.

Linking it all together has an economic dimension—over the last three decades, the struggle to reduce poverty in many countries of the Asia-Pacific region has taken precedence over many other concerns, including cultural concerns. There have been impressive gains alongside policy failures. However, over the last two years, we have heard our governments speak more frequently about turning towards a green economy as a way of protecting the human development gains of the last thirty years while ensuring decent standards of living and acceptable basic social services for citizens.

Against such a background are important questions for civil society active in safeguarding ICH: to what extent is the drive towards a green economy an advantage for a young Convention and how can we build reinforcing partnerships? The answers must come from a generous sharing of local experiences, provided by the growing community of ICH civil society groups and supported by academic and training networks that are already making an impact. The NGO Forum that was held before the commencement of the sixth session of the Intergovernmental Committee (6.COM) of the 2003 Convention in Bali, Indonesia, has shown the way forward and the sizable capabilities of this community.

There are ninety-seven NGOs, CBOs, and civil society groups accredited with the 2003 Convention. Before 6.COM in Bali began, there were thirty-four requests for accreditation to be considered. These represent just a small sample of the tremendous diversity of non-state actors in the ICH field worldwide. More important for us as the ICH community, these groups stand for enduring common cultural values, such as human rights, environmental protection, and cultural revitalization, which are so important to the spirit of the 2003 Convention and to the work of UNESCO.

The transformation that can be wrought at home and abroad by our ICH community is great. It all begins with the recognition that the safeguarding we do locally is a resource to be shared globally.