Wind and soil, culture and change
With soils and humus, with grasses wild or cultivated, with water whose form may be a hill tarn or a great tropical river, has intangible cultural heritage found expression and renewal. Whether in the Himalayan hill districts of northern India, the central province of Sri Lanka with its hydraulic wonders, the great basin of the Tonle Sap in Cambodia whose bidirectional water flow is the basis of both ritual and an aquacultural livelihood, or the highland ‘aldeias’ of central Timor-Leste, in which an age-old institution that bans exploitation of the forest continues to be respected, the bio-physical foundation on which so much intangible cultural heritage depends has remained plentiful and as reliable as the seasons.
But no longer, for new disturbances have shaken this relationship and they are depleting these fundamental materials just as much as altering their very nature. The new uncertainty is undermining the intimate knowledge held by communities of natural processes in their specific locations, such as inter-annual variations in weather or the cycles of certain plant and animal species. Protecting such knowledge is of critical importance – not only for its role of being cultural heritage, and for respecting the wealth of accumulated and transmitted knowledge – but because it possesses the keys to living with change, and especially living with the effects and impacts of climate change.
In domains such as traditional medicine, forestry, the conservation of biodiversity, the protection of wetlands, it is ICH practitioners and the communities they belong to who observe and interpret phenomena at scales much finer than formal scientists are familiar with, besides possessing the ability to draw upon considerable temporal depth in their observation. For the scientific world, such observations are invaluable contributions that advance our knowledge about climate change. For the local world, indigenous knowledge and cultural practices are the means with which the effects of climate change are negotiated so that livelihoods are maintained, ritual and cultivation continue, and survival remains meaningful.
[This short extract is taken from ‘How intangible cultural heritage adapts to a changing world’, my article in the current issue of the UNESCO World Heritage Review. The entire article can be read here (pdf 558kb).]