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Sub-Saharan Africa Just Hit 100 World Heritage Sites. UNESCO Says That’s Not Enough

Supporters of Africa’s cultural and natural heritage recently had cause to celebrate. At the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in September, UNESCO announced five new locations had joined the list of World Heritage Sites, taking sub-Saharan Africa’s total over 100 for the first time.

Rwanda’s first two World Heritage Sites were named among 42 new entries worldwide. One, Nyungwe National Park, has a diverse topography including forests and peat bogs, and is home to the Eastern Chimpanzee, Golden Monkey and other endemic species. The other is a collection of sites in Nyamata, Murambi, Gisozi and Bisesero, memorializing the 1994 genocide that targeted Rwanda’s Tutsi population.

Ethiopia’s 215,000-hectare (531,000-acre) Bale Mountains National Park, which includes the continent’s largest afro-alpine habitat, and Gedeo Cultural Landscape, home to 250,000 indigenous Gedeo people in the Eastern Highlands, were also inscribed on the World Heritage list, along with the Forest Massif of Odzala-Kokoua in the Republic of Congo, a vital habitat for the region’s forest elephants.

But that good news was tempered by the understanding that the continent still has a long way to go when it comes to recognition of its heritage. Sub-Saharan Africa, home to 1.2 billion people, contains less than 10% of sites inscribed on the list. Moreover, Africa has a higher percentage of World Heritages sites in danger than any other continent, and 11 countries (Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eswatini, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sao Tome and Principe, Sierra Leone, Somalia and South Sudan) do not have a single entry on the list.

Pionneer Hagenia vegetation at Rwasenkoko, 2,350 m asl in eastern Nyungwe National Park.
Vegetation in Rwasenkoko, Nyungwe National Park, one or Rwanda’s two new UNESCO World Heritage Sites.G.R. Vande weghe/Courtesy UNESCO

Tombs with glass openings at Gisozi site
A remembrance site to the 1994 genocide in Gisozi, Rwanda.CNLG/Courtesy UNESCO

There are currently 1,199 World Heritage sites, benefitting from the conservation agreements and tourism that come with that status. UNESCO lists 103 of those sites in its Africa region, which does not feature Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia – countries that have a total of 42 World Heritage Sites – which UNESCO includes in its Arab States region.

To qualify, a site must be of “outstanding universal value” and meet at least one of 10 criteria, such as representing “a masterpiece of human creative genius,” containing “superlative natural phenomena,” or bearing “exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.” Africa is not lacking these. So why the historic underrepresentation?

Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of World Heritage, says multiple factors have contributed. One is that some nations were slow to ratify the 1972 World Heritage convention, allowing them to submit applications for World Heritage status. (Somalia, for example, only ratified the convention in 2020.) Another factor is a historic lack of expertise and capacity in some countries to identify and nominate prospective sites, he says.

There’s also no escaping the fact the nomination process can be long and expensive. It takes at least two years for a site to go from nomination to inscription on the World Heritage list, says UNESCO, and can demand resources that some nations simply might not have at their disposal.

African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) in Lekoli River, Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Cuvette-Ouest Region, Republic of the Congo. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
An African forest elephant in Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Republic of the Congo. The park, a new UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a stronghold for the animal.Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty

To tackle these challenges, UNESCO has announced “Priority Africa,” a plan to boost identification and preservation across the continent between now and 2029.

“This new strategy is bringing a new momentum,” says Eloundou Assomo, pointing to previous global initiatives to bring balance to the World Heritage list, dating back to 1994.

“By 2025, we will make sure that most of the African countries that do not have a World Heritage Site have at least started preparing a nomination dossier,” he says, adding he hopes that every African nation currently without a site on the list will have one by the end of the decade.

The World Heritage director – from Cameroon, and the first African to hold the position – says there are more local resources and expertise than ever before to help maintain heritage sites. UNESCO has also partnered with the African World Heritage Fund on a mentorship program to train professionals from a “younger generation, so that they can be the experts and caretakers of tomorrow,” says Eloundou Assomo.

Another goal of the strategy is to work to reduce the number of African sites listed as “World Heritage in Danger.” Human conflict and natural disaster, urban development, poaching, pollution and unchecked tourism can all pose a threat, says UNESCO.

Fifteen sites in UNESCO’s Africa tally are listed as in danger and UNESCO wants to work with its partners to halve that number by 2029.

In positive news, one site in Uganda, the 19th century Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi, in Kampala, was recently removed from the in-danger list after a 13-year effort to restore their indigenous architecture after a fire ripped through the tombs in 2010.

Tuto-fela steles
Gedeo Cultural Landscape in Ethiopia. The new UNESCO World Heritage Site features thousands of stelae, stone monuments with religious significance that archaeologists say are around 2,000 years old.Yonas Beyene/Courtesy UNESCO

Eloundou Assomo says that even in the most challenging circumstances, “it is paramount to support African countries in their effort (to preserve their heritage).”

“World heritage is considered part of the soul of nations and soul of communities,” Eloundou Assomo says. “Their destruction is the disappearance of some identity.”

“If people protect (heritage sites), it helps people rebuild themselves … They have what defines them; because they know their past, they can build for the future,” he adds.

The six-year mission from UNESCO is but the blink of an eye for some of the continent’s oldest and most venerated locations. While it is down to individual nations to submit applications for inclusion on the list, the director did let slip one place he’d like to see inscribed in the future: the Bissagos Islands. The archipelago off the coast of Guinea-Bissau is not only a biodiversity hotspot, it is also populated by a matriarchal society, and would become the nation’s first World Heritage Site.

Eloundou Assomo stresses that countries should look broadly at what they might want to submit to UNESCO for consideration.

“You don’t (need to) have an Eiffel Tower (to) propose a World Heritage Site,” he says. “It’s not only the monumental – there are a variety of sites everywhere in the world that have the potential to join the list.”

Source : CNN