Casper Andersen: Decolonization, conservation and development in UNESCO’s heritage agenda for Africa

Current work-in progress to be presented at the conference African Heritage Challenges: Development and Sustainability, CRASSH, Cambridge, 15-16 May 2015

2014.12.05 | Casper Andersen

Date Fri 15 May Sat 16 May
Time 08:00    17:00
Location Cambridge, UK
Registration has closed

In the wake of decolonization the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) expanded operations in Africa. New initiatives included the establishment in Nairobi of the Regional Office for Science and Technology in Africa (ROSTA) headed by the influential ecologist Alain Gilles. Natural resource management and conservation was a central component of UNESCO’s early programs. This has remained the case into the present ‘World Heritage Era’ in UNESCO. Moreover, the educational background (human ecology) and personal networks of the early UNESCO staff (including e.g. E. B. Worthington) also linked UNESCO’s programs with conservationist and developmentalist ideas and practices of the colonial period.

Based on extensive research in the UNESCO archives, I analyse UNESCO’s programmes relating to natural resource management and conservation in Africa in this early formative period.  Often the initiatives failed to achieve their objectives both with respect to conservation and to facilitating societal development. However, the complex ideas of UNESCO’s African and non-African staff fits poorly into discourses of ‘bad native, good nature’ or with stereotypes of ‘misanthropic ecologists, philanthropic anthropologists’.

What is striking is the level of continuity between then and now both with respect to the challenges of balancing needs for conservation with needs for human development within fragile system – and with respect to the proposed solutions to these challenges. Moreover, the contemporary relevance of the post-independence period is further underscored by the fact that the UNESCO ecologists - due to their central position in UNESCO and the IUCN - played a critical role in the drafting of the 1972 World Heritage Convention which – for better and for worse – has done much to shape how we think about the ‘cultural’ and ‘natural’ dimensions of heritage in Africa.


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Natural and cultural heritage
Tags: Natural and cultural heritage, UNESCO