Is Cultural Heritage lifesaving?

It been said history gives every place in the world a different identity. And so is the case for South Africa. Their history had a large impact on the people and on the environment.

For the annual International Association of Impact Assessment (IAIA) meeting I was in Durban, South Africa. 275km North of Durban lies the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, the oldest UNESCO World Heritage Site in the country. With a coastline of 280km, stretching from the Mozambican border to Mapelane South of the Lake St. Lucia estuary, the park covers 3,280 km2 of natural ecosystems. The park is of such high beauty. The coral reefs and sandy beaches, the subtropical dune forests, savannas, and wetlands. It’s a unique ecosystem. The name iSimangaliso, means ‘miracle’ or ‘wonder’, and that reflects this amazingly rich environment.

The people

Although the UNESCO status concentrates on the environmental beauty, iSimangaliso is also culturally a place of significance. With a history that goes back to the Stone Age the Tsonga people lived there for more than a thousand years. Records from early Portuguese sailors indicate that the bay was home to the Tsjonga and their traditional Tsonga fish kraal. In 1895 things changed when the British came to colonise the area, forcing the Tsonga to leave the southern part which became Zulu Nation. From 1950s to the late 1980s, the lucrative business of plantations arised and the original inhabitants were forced to leave...again. The Tsonga were given the choice to work on the plantations or immediately leave the area. A choice of two evils, obviously, and the effect was immense. Not only didn’t they had the time to pack their belongings. The needed to leave their homes, their land and the land of their ancestors. As a result, the standard of living of these communities decreased drastically.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park

The plantation business grew fast and in a short time the region was covered with huge eucalyptus trees. That had a major effect on the environment; the desiccation of the soil by these trees which turned the wetlands into parched areas. The ‘miracle’ died; and the wild animals and biodiversity disappeared.

Since the time of Nelson Mandela, things changed for the better. The communities reclaimed the land they used to live on and the land of their ancestors. And in 1999, the park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The eucalyptus trees were removed and slowly, water and wild animals returned. Although the indigenous people themselves cannot live here because of the protected status, they work in the park and share revenues. They also have free access to the park and were given the first right to work in tourism (guided tours) and education (internships and trainings). They could harvest the grass and wood, which they use for craftworks and traditional ceremonies to worship their ancestors. This sustainable approach to the management of the park not only improved their quality of life, but it also enables them to reconnect with the land of their ancestors and their cultural identity.

International Association of Impact Assessment

During the IAIA conference, I presented a paper on Flood Risk Management and Cultural Heritage. Cultural heritage is often regarded a ‘side-product’ in an impact assessment. A few years ago, someone asked me: “Is it lifesaving? Because only then we will take it into account.” Since then, the question has been roaming around in my mind. Is cultural heritage lifesaving? At that time, I answered somewhat nervously and quite disappointed, “no, of course not”.

But if we give ourselves a chance to listen to the stories of local communities, we will then understand that to return the land to the people to whom it belongs to, these places of remembrance and places connected to their rituals and traditions, gives these communities the opportunity to reconnect with their origins and their ancestors. Even more, it creates a sustainable future for them. If there’s one thing that South Africa and this wonderful park has taught me, was that “yes…cultural heritage is lifesaving”.