At the turn of the 21st century, even though the international community was again aware of the risks weighing on World Heritage – whether due to climate change, which threatens to engulf in particular Venice under waters, or armed conflicts causing pillages and destruction of cultural goods, such as that of Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 or that of the Mausoleums of Timbuktu in 2012 – the question of the living heritage in emergency was only posed in a very recent way in the international arena. However, this heritage is as vulnerable to emergency situations as the built heritage.

The upheavals that our era knows, such as war, erosion of biodiversity or megafeous and storms, influence both the preservation and conservation of the so -called tangible and natural heritage as on the viability of the living heritage. However, carried by communities, and in many cases linked to natural resources or cultural spaces, the intangible cultural heritage is exposed not only to the risks which affect tangible heritage, but also to distinct threats. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has rather conserved natural and cultural heritage (in particular deleterious effects of tourism) has heavily impacted the living heritage. The carnivals and the holidays had to be canceled, the training and education processes were interrupted. The transmission of cultural expressions and traditional knowledge has become all the more uncertain since the community practicing them is elderly. Some communities have adequately identified this new danger weighing on intangible cultural heritage. In January 2021, the Cherokee nation of Oklahoma, for example, gave people speaking the Cherokee a priority access to the first doses of Covid-19 vaccine to ensure and protect the transmission and practices related to their language and to their culture. In the same way, the forced displacement of the population, whether due to floods, droughts, persecution or armed conflicts, weakens the processes of transmission of living heritage. Indeed, the forced displacement of a community of its ancestral lands alters its way of life, and deprives it of access to religious and cultural sites associated with its living heritage3. The safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage in emergency situations therefore requires borrowing new approaches.

In addition, one of the specificities of the living heritage is that it is not only a passive victim of emergency situations: it constitutes a precious resource mobilized by the communities against emergency situations. Some knowledge and practices are intended to prevent, avoid or reduce risks. Other elements of the living heritage form powerful means of recovery and reconciliation for the “affected populations”. Living heritage, as a lever for sustainable development, is also one of the resources available to communities to recover after an emergency or a disaster. It can facilitate the reconstruction of a cultural identity in sharing, revive a feeling of belonging or promote peacekeeping. It is also precious help to restore damaged or destroyed material heritage. For example, the reconstruction of Timbuktu Mausoleums led to mobilizing knowledge systems transmitted by traditional houses. All of these singular aspects of the living heritage are at the heart of the conference organized jointly by the UNESCO chair “Intangible cultural heritage and sustainable development” and the ethnopôle Centre français du patrimoine culturel immatériel (CFPCI).

In two days, one will try to question through concrete examples, on the one hand, the way in which the living heritage is invested by the communities faced with risks and emergency situations and, on the other hand , the resistance and evolution of cultural practices during and after crises and disasters.

For more information, please visit the website of UNESCO chair “Intangible cultural heritage and sustainable development”.