By Lucie Gil, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. Recent destruction of religious architecture, especially mausoleums, by the Islamist movement Ansar Dine in Tombouctou, Gao and other Malian cities, reminded some Western minds about the existence of a rich African World heritage and the problem of its conservation. However, reflections about the topic are not new and have amplified all over years.
Let’s start with a paradox: 129 sites have been designated by the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) in 37 different African countries, meaning that the continent only represents 9% of the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Nevertheless, it counts 40% of the properties on the list of the World Heritage in danger, according to the Flanders UNESCO Trustfund. Since the end of the Cold War, the majority of armed conflicts have been occurring in Africa, threatening the cultural inheritance, as we saw in the case of Mali. Another important explanation is the vulnerability of the continent to the ongoing process of climate change as well as all the other destructive developments linked to human activities, ranging from poaching and over-exploitation of natural resources to deforestation and desertification.
The conservation and development of African cultural and natural heritage has thus become a real challenge for the continent’s future generation. In order to gather human, technical and financial resources and capabilities, the African World Heritage Fund (AWHF) was created in May 2006, under South African Trust Law. Included in the framework of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention signed in 1972, it is the first regional funding initiative of its kind. It is the result of continuous efforts by the African Union members who take part in the UNESCO Convention. One can certainly look at this initiative as a form of cultural diplomacy at the regional level. By using sites already on the world heritage list and those which may enter it in the future, the AWFH not only aims to foster economic growth and development, but also to transform the image of the whole continent.
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