Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Inca Route as heritage: keeping an eye on the prize

News recently came out that Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are ready to submit their joint application for adding the Inca Route – Qhapaq Ñan – to the World Heritage List.

What is so special about it?
Well, for one, it is the most multinational nomination to ever be presented to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee. Secondly, and most importantly, it is a testament to the achievements of the Inca civilization, which pre-dated European conquest in the Americas, and, even though they were ultimately defeated by the Spaniards, mainly via warfare and disease-spreading , their culture still finds resonance amongst indigenous peoples in these countries.

The nomination, with the assistance of UNESCO, is being prepared for some 10 years and is now about to see the light of day. The Qhapaq Ñan is likely to be nominated as a cultural landscape, due to the connections between nature and man-made elements throughout its six thousand kilometres. A cultural route such as Qhapaq Ñan (a prominent European example being the Camino de Santiago de Compostela) is but a succession of landscapes, and, there lacking a specific category for cultural routes in the World Heritage List, it is appropriate that it be nominated as a cultural landscape.
Another reason why it is appropriate that it be nominated as a cultural landscape is that this category is the one through which intangible cultural heritage elements seep most strongly into the World Heritage System. Given the surviving connections between the Qhapaq Ñan and indigenous peoples in these countries, it is important that the living culture (that is, the intangible) aspects of this heritage also be acknowledged, even if it is very unlikely that communities along the route will have much of a say in the nomination process, let alone the actual management of the route.

It is cause for concern that communities be excluded from international heritage processes, seen as they are the ones who will most likely be impacted by the elevation of their heritage to “international status”, and the ones to whom any economic benefits arising from the exploitation of this heritage should return. But the World Heritage system is not the only one to exclude communities – all UNESCO regimes for the protection of heritage do so. One exception on paper is the system of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003), which has language on community involvement, and even specific programs for that purpose now in its implementation phase. However, these are little more than lip service as they stand, seen as communities are not given a voice directly before UNESCO, only at the national level, which means states are the only ones who still get to speak before the international community about heritage and its importance, getting to ultimately decide what heritage is for international safeguarding purposes.

While an overhaul of the UNESCO system, while much desired, would be unlikely to come before the Qhapaq Ñan is added to the World Heritage List, it is essential that communities, national authorities and (most importantly for the purposes of inscription on the List and subsequent management) UNESCO and the international community keep their eyes set on what really matters: that the living heritage of the Incan Route be preserved and enhanced, and not replaced by a folklorized version of the Inca culture that caters to European tourists, or that favors the monumentality of the route as opposed to the rich multiplicity of the many small nuances and textures of the cultural fabrics that compose this amazing route, and make it a true testament to mankind.

Written by Lucas Lixinski.

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