On this year’s World Heritage Day, we want to highlight the significance of cultural heritage to a country’s development. In this article, you will discover which challenges in cultural heritage conservation were persisting in Cuenca (Ecuador) and Santiago de Cuba and how these challenges were tackled, as a result of our VLIR-UOS researchers’ shared social commitment, both in Belgium and in the South.
Recent research demonstrates the crucial importance of cultural heritage to societies and its great potential to contribute to a country’s social, economic and environmental goals. Not only does cultural heritage enable sustainable development in terms of economic growth, such as increased tourism and local jobs, it also enhances the inhabitants’ sense of identity and a feeling of connection. “Cultural heritage improves people’s well-being” says Koenraad Van Balen from the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven), who graduated as an Architectural Engineer and promotes monument conservation as part of development cooperation. Van Balen’s position was first met with scepticism as cultural heritage was viewed as inferior to good healthcare, food and electricity.
However, VLIR-UOS projects in Ecuador and Cuba showed that the preservation of cultural heritage is key to local and sustainable development. Furthermore, the international congress ‘Culture: Key to Sustainable Development’ in Hangzhou (China) led to the 2013 Hangzhou Declaration that culture is “at the very heart of sustainable development policies” and heritage “a critical asset for our well-being and that of future generations”. Research at Stanford University revealed that investing in cultural heritage may be one of the best economic investments that a developing country can make, estimating that, by 2025, global heritage could provide about 89 billion euros per year for developing countries. Investing in cultural heritage conservation also creates local jobs: labour often makes up 60 to 70% of the conservation cost. Finally, it increases tourism, which, if sustainable, helps to reduce poverty and empowers women, youth and migrant workers.
With its strong cultural tradition and background, the city of Cuenca, also known as the ‘Ecuadorian Athens’, is home to many creative and intellectual minds – writers, scientists, poets, musicians, philosophers and politicians. Cuenca is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, an acknowledgment that also brought challenges to the city’s inhabitants and government: Cuenca had no inventory that was up to date, there was no planning and management in place for the historic centre, and there was a shortage of professionals who had in-depth knowledge or expertise in cultural heritage conservation. Additionally, the country’s national heritage institute, the Instituto Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural was lacking expertise in city preservation management.
In 2007, Van Balen joined forces with Fausto Cardoso Martínez, researcher at the University of Cuenca (UCuenca) to tackle these challenges. Five professors working at UCuenca’s Faculty of Architecture wrote a project proposal built on existing links between the Ecuadorian university and KU Leuven. At the start of the project, a UNESCO Chair on Preventive Conservation, Monitoring and Maintenance of Monuments and Sites was initiated at KU Leuven, creating the opportunity to develop joint research projects between both universities on city preservation as an instrument for development. The team set out to support Cuenca conserve its cultural wealth under a VLIR-UOS IUC project, and to have a plan and team in place to keep doing this in the long run.
The group’s researchers contribute to the Ecuadorian Southern region’s need for more people with expertise and knowledge of preventive conservation and local development. As a result of the cooperation, UCuenca now has a professional Master programme in city preservation management and is internationally recognised for its expertise in preventive conservation methods and techniques. The research group has been able to attract national research funds and plays a proactive role in several international research groups, such as the International Council of Monuments and Sites.
Fausto Cardoso Martínez (on the left) with a couple that taught him a lot on cultural heritage.
Van Balen emphasises the importance of including cultural heritage management in the structure of development projects. “When you connect the economy, the environment, social development and culture from the beginning, the entire development will be more sustainable.” In this case, the conservation of the cultural heritage in Cuenca has contributed to the inhabitants’ quality of life, it supports sustainable tourism and involves diverse stakeholders from within society. “People do not always see the true value of cultural heritage”, he adds, “Look at the massive reaction following the fire at Notre Dame in Paris – you have to acknowledge the value of cultural heritage and take care of it…before it disappears.”
Santiago de Cuba is another city of immense cultural and historical significance facing challenges in the preservation of its cultural heritage, such as lack of funding, lack of scientific knowledge, lack of documentation and sustainable management and lack of proper management tools and relevant information for planning. Philippe Meers, professor film and media studies at the University of Antwerp (UAntwerpen), works on cultural heritage conservation and local development within the IUC programme with Universidad de Oriente (UO) in Cuba. Several processes were put in place to meet these challenges: promotion of training and acquisition of new knowledge, skills development of technicians, researchers and specialists, valorising cultural heritage in society and disseminating the acquired knowledge to a broader audience. Meers announces the creation of a platform that would be accessible with apps in the long run: “For example, in the Vista Alegre district, you will be able to walk around and at the same time get information, photos and maps on your smartphone about buildings and how people used to live in these buildings.”