UNESCO’s Quest to Save the World’s Intangible Heritage

On December 7th, at a safari resort in Kasane, Botswana, Ukraine briefed the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on an endangered national treasure. It wasn’t a monastery menaced by air strikes. Nor was it any of the paintings, rare books, or other antiquities seized by Russian troops. It was borscht, a beet soup popular for centuries across Eastern Europe. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, in February, 2022—as fields burned, restaurants shuttered, and expert cooks fled their homes—Kyiv successfully petitioned UNESCO to add its culture of borscht-making to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. Now, despite setbacks on the battlefield, the state of the soup was strong. A Ukrainian official reported on her government’s new borscht-related initiatives, such as hosting gastronomic festivals and inventorying vulnerable recipes. She looked forward to borscht’s graduation from Urgent Safeguarding to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (I.C.H.) of Humanity—which grew, that session, to include Italian opera singing, Bangladeshi rickshaw painting, Angolan sand art, and Peruvian ceviche.

UNESCO is best known for its prestigious list of World Heritage sites. But its most interesting endeavor might be a survey of humanity’s cultural practices. For two decades, the U.N. agency has been cataloguing the world’s intangible heritage, a label that it has applied to everything from truffle hunting to capoeira. There are more than seven hundred “elements” on the I.C.H. lists—kaleidoscopically arrayed in an interactive tool on UNESCO’s Web site—and browsing them can feel a bit like wandering through a World’s Fair organized by magical realists. Who knew that Mongolian herders could coax camels to adopt orphaned calves by serenading them at twilight? Or that a dozen Belgian families made their living by shrimp-fishing on horseback? The oddball entries alternate with those whose familiarity is even more uncanny. If you’ve ever eaten kimchi, danced bachata, or owned a Swiss watch, you may have participated unawares in UNESCO-protected activity.

A cynic might suspect that “intangible heritage” is a meaninglessly broad category. The lists include carnivals, alphabets, and equestrian games; traditions of boatbuilding and polyphonic song; systems of irrigation, navigation, divination, and conflict remediation; and at least one constitution—the Manden Charter, proclaimed eight centuries ago in present-day Mali. But the eclecticism rests on a solid foundation of international law. The 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage defines I.C.H. as a phenomenon that is transmitted from generation to generation and constitutes an important aspect of a community’s identity. There are five categories: crafts, oral traditions, performance arts, rituals or social customs, and “knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe.” (Religions and languages are notably excluded, though religious festivals and linguistic practices are eligible.) Capaciousness is a feature of the treaty’s non-hierarchical ethos. While UNESCO’s World Heritage sites must demonstrate “outstanding universal value,” the value of intangible heritage is determined by the communities that keep it alive.

Today, more than a hundred and eighty countries are party to the 2003 convention—Great Britain recently announced plans to join them—while “inscription” on the I.C.H. lists has become a coveted prize. Indonesia declared a National Batik Day to mark the recognition of its iconic textiles. Emmanuel Macron devoted an entire speech to the baguette’s consecration, brandishing a loaf of the bread onstage. Newspapers even publish consumer recommendations based on the intangible-heritage program. (“Global Shopping with UNESCO as Your Guide” is the headline of one article in the Times.) Last year, UNESCO took a victory lap to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the convention, organizing panels and performances from Namibia to South Korea. But the agency is still learning what it means to “safeguard” some of the most elusive and complex phenomena in human life. Nations feud over the right to define shared customs. Experts struggle to preserve traditions without commercializing their practice. Perhaps the greatest challenge is that UNESCO’s budget allocates only ten million dollars a year to protecting humanity’s intangible heritage from oblivion. What can it tangibly accomplish?

“Thirty, forty years ago, intangible cultural heritage—or what in other parts of the world we call living heritage—barely existed as a concept at the international level,” Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for culture, told me in a recent call from the organization’s headquarters, in Paris. Ottone is a suave former actor who previously served as culture minister of Chile, and he takes avuncular pride in the growing recognition of I.C.H. He excitedly mentioned a board game showcasing Mongolia’s intangible heritage, as well as recent meetings with groups interested in producing cultural-heritage video games. The widespread enthusiasm was a testament to the convention’s elasticity and inclusiveness. “Instruments should be alive,” Ottone said, of the treaty. “Not like Stonehenge.”

UNESCO’s embrace of the intangible began as a corrective to its monumental bias. Founded in the wake of the Second World War, the organization cut its teeth on campaigns to preserve historic structures, from flood-damaged Venetian palazzos to ancient Egyptian temples threatened by the damming of the Nile. In 1978, it began listing World Heritage sites. Yet most were in Europe and North America, and complaints soon arose that focussing on the built environment threatened to sideline societies whose achievements were, quite literally, less concrete. Such objections were memorably articulated, in another context, by the St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott. “Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?” he writes in “The Sea Is History” (1979), ventriloquizing a prejudiced equation of “civilization” with castles and cathedrals. His answer was in the know-how of sailors and fishermen, in Caribbean performances derived from African masquerades and Hindu epics—in other words, intangible cultural heritage.

The phrase débuted in the early eighties, progressively replacing “folklore,” as UNESCO took a more holistic view of heritage. Culture, it declared, was both “tangible and intangible,” encompassing languages, modes of living, and spiritual beliefs. Nevertheless, decades passed before the organization established a system for protecting these expressions. Part of the issue was that living traditions couldn’t simply be “conserved” like obelisks. They are, in many ways, continuous with the social and ecological networks that sustain them. In the nineties and early two-thousands, UNESCO began recognizing “living human treasures,” “cultural spaces”—practices centered on real or symbolic spaces, such as the Arab custom of seated gatherings called majlis—and “masterpieces” of oral tradition. But a consensus emerged that documentation and awareness weren’t enough. Under the leadership of Koichiro Matsuura, UNESCO drew up a treaty that would empower communities to enact and define their own I.C.H.

Fumiko Ohinata, a UNESCO official tasked with managing the convention’s statutory processes, reverently explained its workings, praising the powerful feelings that the “normative instrument” can excite in the world’s peoples. Nations that have adopted the treaty may submit nominations every other year, which must prove that the proposed elements satisfy various prerequisites. One is the consent and participation of a tradition’s “bearers.” Another is compliance with human rights. (Not one but two Belgian carnivals of medieval origin have been stricken for including racist and antisemitic caricatures.) Nominations also come with videos, which range from slick documentaries to extravaganzas of patriotic kitsch; in Turkmenistan’s showcase of Akhal-Teke horse breeding, stirring music plays as herds thunder across an open field and children in riding costume dance in formation. The overarching criterion is social significance. “We didn’t inscribe soup,” Ohinata said, of borscht’s recognition. “We inscribed what it means to share this food among Ukrainian people.”

Up to sixty files are considered annually by a rotating committee of nations, with successful applicants inscribed on one of three lists: the Representative List, the Urgent Safeguarding List, or the Register of Good Safeguarding Practices, which recognizes effective heritage initiatives. The committee also reviews reports on previously inscribed elements, assessing risks and allotting funds. “Living heritage is a wonderful resource,” Ohinata explained, but it is also uniquely vulnerable to circumstance. “Sometimes, youths are no longer interested. Sometimes, an earthquake doesn’t allow them to continue. Sometimes, it’s the political situation.” Viability is another requirement. UNESCO is committed to protecting endangered traditions, but it also helps those who help themselves; skimming rejections, I felt pity for the Zimbabwean poncho deemed to have “lost much of its function and meaning,” and the Ethiopian oral tradition whose transmission has “almost ceased.”

More fortunate are the traditions that UNESCO deems to have a fighting chance. The diving fisherwomen of South Korea’s Jeju Island, who harvest shellfish from the seafloor without breathing equipment, were a dwindling, elderly bunch when the agency recognized them, in 2016. Now, Ottone said, they number in the hundreds, as young girls—and a few boys—reinvent the subsistence livelihood of their elders as a form of recreation. (Safeguarding I.C.H. means letting it evolve.) Another success story is the bandoneón, an accordion-like instrument that Ottone described as “the soul of el tango.” Before the agency’s intervention, which cost only a hundred thousand dollars, there were a mere handful of bandoneón makers left in South America. “Practically no one was playing it anymore,” he said. “Today, you have three academies of bandoneón, where seventy per cent of the musicians are women,” and dozens of luthiers in the region. Ottone proudly informed me that UNESCO has “never had one element inscribed that has disappeared from the practice of people. But it could happen. Why not?”

My favorite element on the I.C.H. lists is Ijele, a masquerade associated with the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria. It’s one of the largest masks in Africa, a towering assemblage of colorful textiles and tiny fabric figures arranged over a bamboo skeleton in wedding-cake tiers. Ijele is regal and imposing, appearing only at the most important ceremonies, and triumphing, in one story, over witches who try to destroy its house. Yet Ijele is also considered “dead” when it touches the ground. If the dancer who carries the mask lets this happen for even a moment, he surrenders his lineage’s claim to the tradition. It’s hard to imagine a better illustration of intangible heritage—a whirling entity, painstakingly fashioned by an entire community, that must be kept in motion lest it cease to be.

Who could possibly object to the celebration of calligraphy and glassblowing, of dragon boats, abacus calculation, and mariachi? Physical heritage sites are infamously contentious—consider Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas, or the Old City of Jerusalem—and their very singularity leaves them susceptible to zero-sum conflicts. (In her book “A Future in Ruins,” the scholar Lynn Meskell argues that UNESCO designation might even increase the risk of iconoclastic attacks.) Traditions, by contrast, don’t have an occupancy limit, and are open to as many interpretations as they have bearers. Still, in the cutthroat world of international relations, even the intangible is difficult to share.

Nations, the least lovable genre of intangible heritage, regularly bicker over I.C.H. Iran and Azerbaijan have feuded over polo. Russia denounced Ukraine’s supposed failure to “share” borscht as a form of cultural “Nazism,” a threat to the culinary freedom of “every housewife in every region.” Last year, Morocco complained that Algeria was trying to steal its bridal dress, when one of Algeria’s nomination files reportedly cribbed a caftan from Fez. (Algeria vowed to respond with “solid arguments.”) UNESCO’s inscriptions aren’t exclusive, which means that states are free to nominate their own versions of elements that have already been recognized. The lists are dotted with petty duplicates submitted by neighbors, often with slightly different spellings. Yet many still treat the distinction as a kind of trademark, a framing often echoed in the press.

An even more vexing issue is the intangible heritage of national minorities. China, which boasts more inscriptions than any other country, has controversially registered practices associated with its Mongolian, Korean, Kyrgyz, Tibetan, and Uyghur populations, whose cultural expressions it strictly controls. One of them is muqam, a Uyghur musical tradition closely tied to Sufi Islam. It was one of the first elements of intangible heritage recognized by UNESCO. But, in the past decade, China has reportedly suppressed traditional muqam while promoting secular alternatives that appeal to tourists and glorify the state. (China has denied cultural destruction against Uyghurs.) Official commemoration masks ongoing erasure; on a recent visit to Xinjiang, Xi Jinping posed for pictures with Uyghur musicians in traditional garb, a cruel irony when so many Uyghur musicians and scholars have been imprisoned. (Some have emerged from reëducation camps as champions of state-sponsored ethnic harmony, providing China with a fig leaf of community consent.) The Uyghur Human Rights Project has called on the world’s governments to challenge China’s inscription of muqam and other Uyghur traditions on the I.C.H. lists.

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