May 5 is African World Heritage Day, a day when we celebrate the 129 incomparable cultural and natural sites on the African continent inscribed on the World Heritage List. Former US/ICOMOS Trustee Lisa Ackerman of the World Monuments Fund put it this way:
“Africa is a continent that would never cease to provide new wonders for travellers and it’s a place where north to south, east to west, one could find extraordinary places, whether it’s Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held off the coast of South Africa.”
“Africa’s cultural and natural heritage is a force for peace – it is also a driver of development and innovation,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.
17 of Africa’s World Heritage sites are also on the List of World Heritage in Danger, facing threats like armed conflict,terrorism, poaching and climate change to uncontrolled urban expansion, and mineral and oil exploration, all of this unfolding amidst unprecedented economic and social transformations. Protecting and promoting Africa’s cultural and natural heritage resonates at the heart of the modern historic preservation mission, to promote respect and mutual understanding, to safeguard sources of belonging and creativity.
The threat posed to Africa’s world heritage sites by climate change was the subject of a recent story by the Voice of America’s Africa Service. A full audio clip of the story can be found by clicking the link below. In the story, reporter Adam Phillips looked at the threat and what’s being done to address it — including interviews with several US-based professionals who are working with African colleagues to safeguard the continent’s heritage.
Coastal Africa is obviously affected by rising sea levels said WMF’s Ackerman, impacting places like Cape Coast in Ghana, another fortification on the water. Ackerman adds that many of Africa’s cultural and historic sites are threatened by lack of water due to human-caused climate change, not too much water. The result is drought or creeping desertification that threatens sites like Mauritania’s Chinguetto Mosque, where the World Monuments Fund is at work. The site was a great medieval center of Islamic learning that sits on a landscape that has become so dry it can no longer grow food.
US/ICOMOS member Adam Markham, deputy director of the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a co-author of UCS’s Landmarks at Risk report, was also interviewed for the story. According to Markham, rising sea level causes increased flooding for cities on or near the coasts where most people live. And the storm surges that result from increasingly frequent “super-storms” and other extreme weather events make severe floods extremely likely.
Climate change impacts know no national boundaries, with otherwise-unconnected communities facing common climate change risk profiles. Desertification threatens places as divergent as Africa and the United States while coastal communities across the globe face a common threat from sea level rise. This dynamic places an enormous premium on cultural heritage professionals who can share learned experiences internationally.
Today we celebrate Africa’s outstanding World Heritage and also salute the US-based professionals working with African colleagues to help protect and promote them — and through that work the heritage of all humankind. We urge more US/ICOMOS members to build bridges to this amazing continent.