Michael Croft, UNESCO Representative to Nepal, spoke to Nepali Times on the occasion of Buddha Jayanti to discuss the development of Lumbini and other heritage sites in the country. Excerpts:
What is UNESCO’s role in Nepal?
Michael Croft: Nepal is almost a microcosm of the wider human community because it is intensely diverse. The many different languages, Indigenous groups, traditions and geography make it a complex functioning entity.
And in that mix, there are certain lessons that can be drawn on how people can get together, how people can get along, how people can live in peace. And with the diversity comes also a rich cultural and creative heritage in Nepal.
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As a result, we came up with a strategy by focusing on three main issues. We ask ourselves: What are the priorities here? What do Nepalis really care about?
We work directly with the government, private sector, civil society, and we also work with international partners and other UN agencies. In Lumbini, UNESCO can bring everybody on the table where they can put their perspectives for all to see, understand and comment on.
Our resources are limited, our time is limited, and it would be really difficult for UNESCO to move the needle without support from the stakeholders. But if we can facilitate a partnership, a common understanding, things can perhaps move in the right way.
How about UNESCO’s work in natural heritage preservation?
The brand of the world cultural heritage is so strong that it tends to overshadow everything else. But the true magic happens in the interesting space where culture meets nature. And UNESCO has a range of designations for natural sites: global geo-parks, biosphere reserves, and such.
Nepal has an outstanding natural heritage, with two designated sites: Sagarmatha and Chitwan. These sites provide an important leverage, especially since Sagarmatha is known worldwide. Showcasing these best practices makes them globally relevant and visible. This is the same for Lumbini although in a different context, and the two sites that can generate enormous soft power because they are known and valued by millions of people many of whom have never even seen them.
Given global climate change, there is a need for just as much energy and resource, if not more, to be put into promoting biodiversity. We have to protect these few remaining places so that we can learn more from them and draw lessons on how to restore the same in other parts of the world.
This also links to the role of Indigenous groups, who are 4% of the world population but control or manage 80% of the biodiversity.
If we don’t have an ecosystem then it makes no sense to talk about cultural heritage anyway, because there is a complex codependency between the two.
What other steps can Nepal take in leveraging the soft power of Lumbini and Sagarmatha?
In Nepal, Lumbini and Sagarmatha are discussed a lot. But in the case of Lumbini, especially, the international dialogue is not yet what it could be. Because UNESCO is an inter-governmental organisation, it can play a part in providing international visibility and facilitating international interactions.
These can play a pivotal role in influencing international perceptions of Nepal. They provide a chance to exchange ideas and practices with other countries and global institutions with different experiences and expertise.
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The visibility attained in this way allows for the Nepali story to reach other countries and communities, and people can have an appreciation for Nepal for what it really is, not what they think it is.
The key role of UNESCO is to promote peace and sustainable development through international collaboration, education, science and culture. The ground-level work has to be accompanied by the discourse that reminds us why Lumbini is important, what it stands for. UNESCO can assist the government to build a network with international partners.
Is Lumbini being overbuilt?
I wouldn’t say that Lumbini is overbuilt. The issue is that Lumbini is an area where the greatest amount of resources have been focused on infrastructure, and to some extent some of the archaeological work, but not so much on other elements.
Perhaps the infrastructure has gone ahead of other aspects because the responsibility of expanding infrastructure falls on one key official actor, the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT). But there are many cogs and wheels moving in Lumbini and sometimes it is difficult to synchronise.
Softer issues such as the local communities’ ability to leverage the sites for their own sustainable development, and the quality of guides to interpret the sites have not received as much attention. It is important to come up with solutions because one cannot develop any particular course in Lumbini without referring to another, or else everything falls out of sync.
Lumbini must consider developing its soft power so that people can have a much deeper experience with the site, and more visitors come. This includes a proper visitor management plan and a focus on why people come to Lumbini and how long they stay.
The International Committee for Lumbini within the UN has been dormant, how can Nepal revive it?
If there is an interest from the government, there are many partners who would like to see this happen. I believe that there also needs to be a reaction from the UN and UNESCO because we were formed for this.
If the government say they need an international process, this is our raison d’être. We can call for the meeting of the member states, with the Nepal government as the host. The member states appreciate and value opportunities which allow them to come together at a site and address issues like the one Lumbini represents.
What is your assessment of rebuilding of monuments after the 2015 earthquake?
For us the main lesson was how key the involvement of the community is. This was the result of community response, interest and participation, directly influenced by the fact that these are not just relics or monuments, but rather part of a living culture and heritage, and part of their lives.
Having seen what I have seen, I was impressed by the reconstruction. The amount of work, knowing all the different priorities that the cities, towns, municipalities and the government had, to see the effort that has been put into the restoration of cultural heritage – it is really something.
The big lesson here for next time is to put the community front and centre immediately. We need to listen to the community for their ideas on that and support them, not make decisions on behalf of the community.
But could the reconstruction have been done differently, or better?
It is a bit difficult for me to comment on that as I wasn’t here to see the process. But the things that reverberate the most from the process are generally positive.
I would say perfection is the enemy of the good. I am sure it could have been better in some ways, but it could have been worse as well. And from what I see, there are no major flaws.
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The last time Kathmandu had a major earthquake was in 1934, so there was no preparation or plan, and people just did what they thought they should. And our natural instinct where we do things first is not always the best.
But the important thing is, the process changed and lessons were learnt. It is very difficult to respond constantly with best practices in situations like this.
The elephant in the room is the haphazard urbanisation around seven protected sites in Kathmandu Valley. Are we at risk of being removed from the World Heritage Sites list?
It is not UNESCO but the World Heritage Committee with the member states of UNESCO who remove sites from the list, but only in very special circumstances. It is really a measure of last resort.
There is no imminent risk of Kathmandu being removed from that list. But this is not to say that the risk is not there at all, but there are opportunities also for doing better in Kathmandu.
What are some of UNESCO’s current concerns in Nepal?
Everyone recognises that this is a difficult time. The government has to balance priorities and often situations do not allow for immediate investment in the heritage sector.
But as with any other rapidly developing urban centres around the world, there is a very practical risk not just to the sites but also to Kathmandu’s urban architecture and the intangible cultural heritage.
This is where the idea of creative cities comes in, and I think it is up to UNESCO to make an economic case for it.
There is an international network of creative cities created in 2004-2005, where the cities basically said ‘We are going to use our creative industries, creative economies as a means to work for our sustainable development’. This really picked up after Agenda 2030, SDGs in 2015.
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This will be very timely for Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur because this designation as creative cities serves as a narrative for them to promote the creative industry and economies, and move forward in the development.
This then attracts partners who want to support the development of Kathmandu, and starts to influence how investment is done. This puts the spotlight on the community and also gives the time, place and platform for them to collaborate.
I don’t think it is practical for UNESCO to go around and yell louder about the importance of protecting culture and heritage. Where UNESCO can best put its effort is encouraging the stakeholders to look at development from a different perspective. We as people can’t stop development, and we don’t want to stop development. But what is the kind of development we want?
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