Knowledge and Nature: Why the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage is a Foundational Activity for Environmental Conservation by Rahul Goswami


The work of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage (ICH) under the UNESCO 2003 Convention, although 'cultural', is also essentially multidimensional in nature. Questions about livelihood and income, about product and market, about loss of habitat, about the need for long-term support of one kind or another are often raised by government officials and tradition bearers. Our work touches a much larger audience than state party functionaries, and its interests are fundamentally deeper than those of government and that is why addressing 'development' as an outcome has become central. Perspectives gathered in several countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including India, show that the more our training and that transitions to an economics that is participatory and not exploitative, the more we will see safeguarding becoming an accepted development methodology. Already we find that a wide variety of actors and stake-holders are considering their activity and subjects as being ‘ICH’ or in the universe of indigenous and local knowledge (ILK) and associated expressions. These actors and stakeholders may be educational and academic institutions, bearer and practitioner associations, civil society, NGOs, private sector and philanthropic foundations. Yet countries still fail to envision and conduct safeguarding ICH as part of their efforts towards attaining sustainability in natural resource use. One way to enable this is the localisation of ICH safeguarding training materials and methods as the foundation for capacity-building. This requires a novel approach, working on local needs with contact points in ministries, and in non-state institutions and organisations, and particularly with ICH groups and associations. Training on inventorying, safeguarding plans, national or sub-national policies, ICH and development, ICH and gender, ICH and biodiversity/climate change/environment will all benefit from specific treatment.
The vectors influencing safeguarding may be economic, policy (cultural and other), social, demographic and political change, environmental and natural (including disasters). Thus we need to study and apply the learning about development pathways that are in tune with the agro-ecological and climatic conditions and respect natural boundaries. Education is critical, to sensitise people to the inter-related subjects of culture, heritage, knowledge, transmission, and environment. In this way, for example, the connection between the raw material from which a musical instrument is crafted and the forest is made clear because the forest is nearby and requires protection. Under such an approach ICH safeguarding helps a country meet one or more of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), contributes to livelihood security and earning avenues for host communities, strengthens the ability of communities to adapt to the effects of climate change, deepens their capacity for undertaking environment stewardship as a foundational step for ICH safeguarding. It is practitioners and tradition bearers who are likely to provide the most compelling expertise. The UNESCO 2003 Convention shares subjects and aims with a number of international conventions and agreements on biodiversity, environment, flora and fauna, climate change. They all share goals of conservation and sustainable use, which are central to the SDGs. To meet their objectives, these (and other) conventions and treaties have developed a number of complementary approaches and operational tools that can benefit the work of the ICH Convention, and strengthen its contribution to having local and national ecological and natural habitats be treated with much greater care than has hitherto been done.