Lazare Eloundou Assomo, newly appointed Director of World Heritage at UNESCO, joined us at Africanews to have a discussion on the preservation of African heritage.
Bridget Ugwe, Africanews: For those of us who are not familiar with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization (UNESCO), could you explain what your mission within the institution consists of concretely?
Lazare Eloundou Assomo, Director of the Unesco World Heritage: My mission as director of world heritage within the UNESCO is first to encourage all the countries of the world to identify the sites located on their territory and to propose them for inscription on the UNESCO world heritage list. However, I also encourage international cooperation in the field of the preservation of existing cultural and natural sites, so that this preservation action can also play a role in the development of the different countries and in the recognition of their cultural diversity. One of my missions is also to help countries that do not have the means to preserve their sites by providing them with technical and financial assistance.
The news of your appointment was widely welcomed, especially on the African continent. You are indeed the first African to take the reins of the UNESCO world heritage. You have been working in the field for 21 years on restoration and rehabilitation missions, your first steps led you to South Africa; you were a young architect then. You had an encounter that left a lasting impression on you. Can you tell us about it?
I went to South Africa to help the South African government to build one million houses for the township populations, immediately after the elections, independence, etc. The working method used by my colleagues and I was to give South Africans themselves the opportunity to build their own homes by giving them both training and then contracting opportunities. Of course, it reached the ears of President Nelson Mandela, who did me the honor of coming to visit the sites I was managing and with whom I spent an extraordinary moment. I discovered a man of incredible humility. I think that when you have an experience like this one in your life, it guides you for the rest of your professional life. Thank you very much, really, for reminding me of that moment.
In 2003, you joined the UNESCO and you contributed to the creation of the African World Heritage Fund. Is it one of your battles to correct this lack of representation of the African continent in the world heritage?
The representation of all world heritage sites, of all the regions of the world, is very important, especially for Africa, which is known as the cradle of humankind, with its very important specificities, whether you are from East Africa, West Africa, Central Africa or Southern Africa. We know the diversity. And it so happens that today, on the world heritage list, there are already many African sites. But when we look at the number of sites that exist today, there are 1,154 sites that are inscribed on the world heritage list, less than ten percent of the sites are located in Africa. I think, and many people think so too, including the Director General of UNESCO, Mrs Audrey Azoulay, that Africa should be given a little more space. And we are going to work in this direction with the African governments to identify more sites and have sites that deserve to be listed and recognised as world heritage.
What are some major projects that await you?
This year, in 2022, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, where we will first assess all the major achievements over the past 50 years. But also how we are going to project ourselves over the next 50 years so that World Heritage continues to play its part in international cooperation, preservation of peace and the fight against all the effects of the global challenges facing the planet.
On ecological and environmental issues, we will work on reducing the effects of climate change on World Heritage sites. Because you have seen all over the world the rise in water levels, coastal erosion, bush fires, the most important disasters, which mean that if, we do not do something, world heritage sites will be destroyed. Yet we know how precious they are because they are references in the history of different people and they are reminders of their greatness. Finally, we will continue to strive for the protection of the cultural heritage in the face of armed conflicts that are very destructive. Here are some of -the many projects- on which we will work with the different governments.