World Heritage
World Heritage

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World Heritage

2.4.2 Cultural landscapes

It is appropriate at this point to refer to another interesting concept in the World Heritage portfolio, the cultural landscape, which was influenced significantly by the long tradition of European landscape painting. A great variety of landscapes can be identified with distinctive regions of the earth. Invariably they combine a natural environment modified over the ages by humans, and they have become significant and often politically sensitive because they reflect specific techniques of land use that sustain biological diversity and are under threat from inappropriate development or climate change. Moreover, they are often associated with intangible heritages unique to the communities who live there; examples are religious beliefs, and artistic and traditional customs, perhaps reflecting the spiritual relationship of people with their environment.

In UNESCO’s view ‘cultural landscape’ embraces a diversity of interactions between humankind and its natural environment (see also West and Ndlovu, 2010). Cultural landscapes often reflect specific techniques of sustainable land use that take into consideration the characteristics and limits of the natural environment in which they are established, and a specific spiritual relation to nature. Protection of cultural landscapes can contribute to modern techniques of sustainable land use and can maintain or enhance natural values in the landscape. The continued existence of traditional forms of land use supports biological diversity in many regions of the world.

Three main types of cultural landscape can be identified, the first being the ‘intentional’ landscape, that is, one designed and created by human intervention. These landscapes include gardens and park landscapes constructed for aesthetic reasons and sometimes associated with religious or other monumental buildings and ensembles. The second is the organically evolved landscape that may have developed for social, economic, administrative and/or religious reasons but that still retains a close relationship to its natural environment. Such landscapes reflect this process of evolution in their form and component features. Two interesting subgroups merit attention: there is the ‘relic’ (or fossil) landscape, where an evolutionary process came to an end at some point in the past, either abruptly or over a period. Its significant distinguishing features are, however, still visible in material form. The other sub-group is the ‘continuing’ landscape, where an active social role in contemporary society is closely associated with traditional ways of life but where the evolutionary process is still underway (though this may actually fail to preserve the landscape itself). At the same time this landscape exhibits significant material evidence of its evolution over time. The third main type of cultural landscape is described as the ‘associative cultural landscape’, where significance arises from strong religious, artistic or cultural associations of the natural element rather than from tangible cultural evidence which may be limited or indeed totally absent.

Politics is an important sub-text in examples which indicate the association of landscape heritage with specifically religious rights among tribal peoples. Two of the earliest cultural landscape designations are in the Australasian region: the Tongariro National Park in New Zealand and the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in Australia (Figure 4), both essentially spiritual sites.

Figure 4 Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park World Heritage site, central Australia. Photographed by David Ball. Photo: © David Ball/Alamy.

Tongariro, inscribed in 1993, is an area of dramatic landscapes with active and extinct volcanoes and diverse natural environments. At the heart of the park are mountains with strong religious and cultural significance to the Maori people, a feature shared with Uluru, the immense monolith that dominates the vast sandy plains of Central Australia and is linked to belief systems. Clearly these are complex sites, tangible on the ground but at the same time linked to the imaginative and spiritual vitality of their peoples. In such cases cultural landscapes have close associations with the intangible heritage of the peoples involved. And although these examples are no longer under threat from inappropriate development, many others elsewhere are not in such a favourable position, particularly where political decisions often affect resource exploitation for minerals or timber.

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