Brazilian experience helps preserve African heritage

Becoming a World Heritage Site is one of the greatest achievements a country can have. However, when looking at the map of sites that have already received this title, it’s easy to notice that there is a great imbalance when comparing Africa with other continents, especially with Europe. But according to Ambassador Maria Edileuza Fontenele Reis, Brazil’s delegate to UNESCO, the Brazilian expertise in this area has served as an example for the African continent.

“Today, the main difficulty for the African continent is still in the lacking of technical capacity to organize its applications,” says the ambassador. On the map of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Europe and North America have almost 50% of the more than 1,000 heritage sites, while Africa has only 96.

The map that shows where are the locations considered as World Heritage Sites (Source: UNESCO)

“They [Europeans] value that much more. As for Africa, we are fighting for better geographical distribution in this list of heritage sites. Africa has had a harder time organizing its dossiers, the technical conditions for submitting their applications,” explains the ambassador.

However, the Brazilian experience in this area has served as a reference for African countries. With 22 World Heritage Sites, Brazil has translated into the Portuguese language all the manuals on dossier composition for site applications and made them available free of charge to other Lusophone countries.

Ambassador Maria Edileuza Fontenele Reis, Brazil Delegate to UNESCO

The work is carried out through the Lúcio Costa Center, part of the Institute of National Historical and Artistic Heritage, based in Rio de Janeiro. Created in 2010, the center aims to expand the capacity to manage cultural and natural heritage, as well as to promote cooperative actions in the region.

According to the ambassador, the center also has cooperation projects with other countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia to support them also in the preservation of their sites, since most of them are natural. The center also promotes preservation courses aimed exactly at Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries.

The restitution of historical artifacts

One of the great struggles of the African countries has been for the restitution of assets of patrimonial value that were removed from the continent during the period of European colonization. Many of these artifacts that are now on display in major museums around the world are of African origin.

“This has been the subject of bilateral negotiations between countries. Not only in Africa, but Greece also has its demands. There are more flexible European countries regarding this return. What I feel is that there has been sensitivity in some cases and I think bilateral management should continue,” she argues.

“What I feel is that there has been sensitivity in some cases and I think bilateral management should continue”

Recently, African engagement has gained strength. Senegal, which opened the Museum of Black Civilizations, has been making great efforts to return artifacts so that they can be displayed as part of the history of the African continent, this time told exactly by Africans. Angola has also sought to find more efficient methods of certifying objects that may have patrimonial value and thus prevent them from leaving the country.

Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, Senegal

“It is difficult for European museums to return everything, especially when it comes to Egypt or Greece. But as for objects of religious value, I see that there is more sensitivity,” says Edileuza.

The new Brazilian sites

Brazil has recently received new titles of World Heritage. The Paraty and Ilha Grande site, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, was awarded with a special honor: it was the first mixed site in the country. That means it became a natural heritage, due to the presence of the Atlantic Forest in the region, as well as cultural, due to the Portuguese colonial architecture.

Paraty’s colonial architecture is one of the region’s major tourist attractions

“The inclusion of these sites has, in the first place, the dimension of preservation of the world heritage, considered of universal value. The second is the promotion of the creative economy and the encouragement of sustainable heritage-oriented tourism. So it is a topic of great relevance to the country, gives prestige, increases the self-esteem of local communities and encourages the preservation,” recalls the ambassador.

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According to her, Brazil is also preparing the application of new places to receive the UNESCO title. The Roberto Burle Marx Site, in Rio de Janeiro, should already have its documents evaluated next year. In addition to these, the Lençóis Maranhenses and Jericoacoara, both in the Northeast region, should also apply in the near future.

Part of the Atlantic Forest preserved in Ilha Grande

How to become a Heritage site

UNESCO divides its heritage into three categories: natural, cultural and mixed. The title can be given to cities, neighborhoods, communities or social and cultural manifestations of each location

In order to receive the title of heritage, UNESCO itself must take this initiative to grant it or the countries themselves put together an application dossier with the characteristics and why a particular site is considered a priceless asset to humanity. Each application is reviewed at the annual UNESCO Summits.

After granting the title, the Organization also has responsibility for its preservation. Today, Italy is the country with the largest number of heritage sites in the world. With over 50, the European country is accompanied by China, Spain, France, and Germany among the five largest.