Wong Pui May is a community liaison manager affiliated with RIMBA. She has been working for the past year to facilitate community development initiatives at the Bateq village at the border of Taman Negara National Park. She was selected to receive a THF Travel Grant to participate in the Asian Regional Course on Promoting People-Centred Approaches to Conservation of Nature and Culture (PNC2019) in Dambulla, Sri Lanka. This is her report from the conference.
The ten days of the Asian Regional Course on Promoting People-Centred Approaches to Conservation of Nature and Culture (PNC2019) were an intense learning and thinking experience, which provided a conducive environment to thoroughly consider the whys and hows of engaging people in heritage conservation. Right at the beginning, I was reminded of the importance of critical thinking and not accepting anything at face value, including something as seemingly straightforward as the definition of words. For example, the word “conservation”. Those working in the nature sector would think of wildlife and natural areas almost by default, while those in the culture sector would instead imagine ancient monuments and archaeological sites, or intangible cultural heritage like dances and crafts.
Participants were reminded throughout the course that as practitioners, we set the definition for various terms and that terminology should not be taken lightly. We were also encouraged to think about decolonizing heritage conservation. From what I have learnt from and about Orang Asli thus far, I agree that being critical about terminology goes beyond academic arguments over semantics. Many terms that are casually used to refer to Orang Asli could be considered pejorative, for example, anthropologists now refrain from using the term ‘tribe’ and use ‘group’ instead.
This course brought together 20 participants from 16 countries and numerous resource persons (experienced practitioners who gave lectures and were available to answer questions or have discussions any time throughout the course) from more than 12 countries. Apart from myself, there was another participant from Malaysia, Mr Lau Ching Fong, a Research Officer with the Perak State Park Corporation. One resource person was from Malaysia—Ms Ng Boon Nee, a Town Planner with George Town World Heritage Incorporated.
Organised by ICCROM and IUCN, the course intended to build links between practitioners working in natural and cultural heritage conservation and to promote people-centred approaches in the management of heritage sites. Nature and culture sectors had developed and evolved separately but both had independently come to realise that for conservation to be sustainable, people need to be at the centre of conservation practices, not relegated to an afterthought. Therefore, as part of the World Heritage Leadership Programme delivered by IUCN and ICCROM, training workshops are held to promote people-centred approaches. One of the goals of the course was to promote the paradigm shift ‘from care of heritage to that of pursuing the well-being of both heritage and society as a whole’.
More specifically, the objective of the course was to find better practices of managing cultural and natural heritage in connectivity, that would benefit both the heritage and the sustainable development needs of society. There was an emphasis on incorporating the Sustainable Development Goals in the management and development of heritage sites.
The diverse curriculum consisted of lectures and discussions, site visits, case study presentations by participants and group work. The lectures covered a host of topics related to engaging people and conservation management of heritage sites. Specific topics included the interrelationship of people, nature, culture; understanding governance; management tools; managing change and continuity; rights-based approaches and traditional knowledge systems.
The use of heritage sites around Dambulla as study sites lent a real-world feel to the course. The study sites were the two World Heritage Sites of the Ancient City of Sigiriya and Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple, the Minneriya Tank and agricultural landscape, Kaudulla Tank and wildlife tourism, and the Ritigala Monastery Site which is adjacent to a Strict Nature Reserve closed to the public. Tank is the local name for ancient reservoirs, which are an integral part of Sri Lanka’s traditional agricultural landscapes.
Before the site visits, Sri Lankan government officials first gave an overview of the background of each site, natural and cultural values, how it is managed and protected, stakeholders that need to be engaged and challenges faced. Each site visit was guided either by an expert who conducted PhD research at the site or local management staff, where participants had more opportunities to mingle with and pepper our Sri Lankan hosts with questions. Participants were also divided into four groups for the group assignment, which was to conduct a stakeholder analysis for one of the sites and propose short and long-term management actions in line with long-term development plans for the region while keeping in mind the Sustainable Development Goals.
One of the main selection criteria for participants were their case studies based on respective current projects, and the participant presentation sessions proved to be a diverse and rich sharing of experiences from both nature and culture sectors. Some of the work was just starting while others were in the implementation stages, but all had encountered challenges when engaging people in conservation efforts. The participants had backgrounds in wildlife, law, economics, visual arts, architecture, history, urban planning, chemistry and geography and work in a mix of sectors ranging from central or local government, NGOs, universities and museums to the private sector.
Something which was highlighted at the beginning of the course was that it was not designed to provide participants with answers, and it was likely that more questions would be raised instead. This proved to be true since the context at every heritage site is unique, and an approach that works in one place may not suit another community. But what participants have gained is a toolbox of approaches and experiences that could be drawn from to better inform proposed solutions to site-specific challenges.
What I found most interesting and useful were the discussions around the human rights-based approach towards engaging people, and the importance and contemporary relevance of traditional knowledge systems. The rights-based approach is based on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Essentially, heritage conservation should not impinge on human rights and there should be free, prior and informed consent before sites are declared, as well as community participation and knowledge sharing in management. Conservation cannot take place at the expense of social justice. It was also discussed how different cultures or governments view human rights, and whether it is a western construct. Ultimately it will be up to the conservation practitioner to navigate local customs to strive for a win-win situation for both people and heritage.
The session on stakeholder analysis was very useful and is something that can be applied immediately to better organise my thoughts and approaches as I continue to learn from the Bateq people of Kampung Kuala Koh in Kelantan. I intend to work towards facilitating collaboration on conservation research between Bateq and Rimba or other conservation organisations, and genuine dialogue with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia regarding use and management of wild living resources in Taman Negara.
While I am not currently in a management role at a heritage site, the knowledge acquired about governance and management would help me understand the challenges faced by protected area managers, as I plan to initiate a conversation on how I could complement their efforts when it comes to engaging with Orang Asli.
The course also provided an invaluable opportunity to network with peers from multiple nationalities, which fosters an understanding of alternative perspectives and histories. Apart from forming a community of diverse resource people who would be available for advice or perhaps even brainstorming in the future, participants have also become friends. And in passion-driven fields like conservation, a support group of like-minded professionals will go a long way towards enabling us to continue doing what we do in the face of challenges.
I hope to continue the discussion about people-centred approaches and nature-culture linkages among conservationists working in Malaysia. Coincidentally, PNC2020 will be held in Penang Island next year with George Town World Heritage Incorporated as the local organising partner, and there may be opportunities to get involved. For a start, in early 2020 I will be conducting a sharing session with colleagues at Rimba, as part of existing practices for internal knowledge sharing.