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A free course exploring cultural heritage as a lens to critically question conventional approaches on adaptation

Month: May 2022

3.1 Diversity of voice: Introduction of case studies

The importance of diversity of voice

In order to move away from or critically reflect on a western discourse on heritage management and risk assessment you need to listen to a range of voices from different geographies.

The CRITCAL project aimed to better understand the role of heritage within risk assessment through the investigation of three case study sites. We wanted to develop a community of practice across three Low-Middle Income Countries (LMICs) and the UK. The case study sites worked three scales: the small-scale settlement of Elandskloof in South Africa; a city region of Yogyakarta, Indonesia and a national approach across Sri Lanka. Exploring these three scales we were able to capture a narrative-based risk assessment for heritage and found that heritage opens avenues for dialogue on livelihoods, gender, local level capacity and vulnerability.

The video below outlines the importance of understanding culture at a local level.

Three sites, many voices

This module explores three locations. Through videos and text we ask you to consider these studies and reflect on how heritage is understood in different contexts.

In summary we found that heritage can take many forms, for example in this course we have examples of buildings, landscapes, and customs. Furthermore, we found how heritage is important not just because it is vulnerable to climate change but also because it offers capacity. We invite you to explore the posts in this module and learn more about how heritage can be a tool for climate change adaptation and risk reduction.


The research teams engaged with local communities and experts to address all three original research questions. Their findings are context specific and include alternative and community led visions of cultural heritage and their interconnections with climate change adaptation and sustainable livelihoods. As well as identifying and trialling innovative participatory methods that can be integrated within a wider holistic risk framework that places cultural assets and practice at the heart of resilience building.

At a national scale, Dr Karunarthna carried out multiple interviews and facilitated workshops in rural settlements across Sri Lanka. Furthermore, her work included a review of historical literature exploring the role of women in traditional rural practices. At a city-scale, Dr Retnowati and Ms Anantasari carried out a series of interviews with key stakeholders along the River Code in Yogyakarta region. In South Africa, Prof O’Connell and Ms Niemand led two workshops, a household survey and a series of interviews in Elandskloof, South Africa. In addition, a review of climate data for each site and a systematic synthesis of literature related to heritage, risk and value was undertaken (Crowley et al 2022).

Research findings in brief

The South Africa team, led by Dr Siona O’Connell and Dominque Niemand, identified the influence loss in terms of indigenous knowledge systems and how food heritage may pave the way to intergenerational knowledge exchange. They also explore how violent and forced removals from the land have led to significant vulnerabilities for communities across South Africa. Section 3.2 outlines the case study findings in detail.

In Indonesia the team, Dr Arry Retnowati and Esti Anantasari identified the importance and cultural value of an urban river system and are expanded their work to explore the wider urban setting of Yogyakarta, and it’s bid to become a city-wide UNESCO World Heritage Site. The river’s cultural narrative is critical in understanding local adaptive capacity and vulnerabilities over time, and how cultural heritage is a dynamic force not just something to be preserved. Section 3.4  outlines the case study findings in detail.

In Sri Lanka, Dr Dulma Karunarathna identified the importance of local knowledge for water resource management and the cultural connections for women and their livelihoods. She has also implemented a series of engagements with communities in Sri Lanka through school-based art competitions as well as community storytelling workshops. Section 3.3 outlines the case study findings.

The narratives emerging from the three sites align with the results of the desk-based literature reviews that have identified the serious lack of understanding and integration of intangible cultural heritage, community level engagement, and cultural value in risk assessments for climate change adaptation and disaster management.

This section provides an outline of each case study site explaining the context, and key findings.


Read the teams literature review – Crowley et al 2022 Open Access paper

1.3 What is cultural heritage?

Understanding what is heritage and how is it valued?

A quick overview of key ideas.

We view heritage as processual and emergent, as opposed to static objects to be only preserved (Harvey and Perry, 2015). Tangible climate change impacts on heritage, such as eroding coastal archaeology, chemical weathering and thawing permafrost/landscape change, have dominated publications (Hollesen et al., 2018; Dawson et al., 2020). Yet impacts on heritage intersects with a far wider range of objects and practices (Sandford 2019; DeSilvey and Harrison, 2020).

Intangible heritage, such as traditional belief systems, are also a resource of environmental knowledge for future adaptation (Adger et al 2012). Archaeologists and heritage experts have benefited from comparing different cultural sites, focusing on the diversity of heritage sites, landscapes and traditions and what can be learned from such examples (Hambrecht and Rockman, 2017).

Sharing knowledge of the range of impacts, threats and opportunities associated with multiple types of heritage in different geographical contexts is important developing effective frameworks for heritage protection and as well as community resilience (Fluck and Wiggins, 2017).

Effective dialogue between heritage experts and community members has been acknowledged as a vital step in understanding the role of heritage for climate change adaptation (Hambrecht and Rockman, 2017; Rockman and Hritz, 2020; Rick and Sandweiss, 2020), and there is potential to learn from the diversity of heritage nationally and internationally (Dawson et al., 2020).

What is heritage?

Heritage has been described as “all things to all people”. As we have noted hertiage can be tangible (e.g., buildings, sites, objects) and intangible (e.g., ritual practices, music, belief system). The difficulty tying the concept down makes the scope of heritage hard to define and difficult to contain within one discipline of study.

The disciplines conventionally associated with heritage have focused on the preservation and conservation of historical artefacts, sites, and landscapes. For example, in museums vast resources are dedicated to the conservation of historic artefacts; in national parks resource managers monitor impacts cultural and natural heritage at the landscape scale; and architects and planners’ monitor impacts on buildings and cityscapes.

The extensiveness of heritage assets require the concerted efforts of international organisation like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) to evaluate and monitor heritage ranging from internationally recognised—World Heritage—to intangible heritage at the local scale.

In practice, organisations such as the National Park Service of the United States and Historic Environment Scotland are responsible for the protection and management of cultural heritage at the national scale.

Finally, we can think about heritage at the local scale; the scale at which it is lived, valued, imagined, and consumed.

In the video below, researchers involved in the CRITICAL project consider what heritage means to them. Note how heritage varies significantly between members of the project team. This can be explained by different personal experiences, disciplinary training, research cultures, and national ideas of heritage.

History of heritage

Modern heritage studies and World Heritage dates to the aftermath of the Second World War and the establishment of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1945. Set in the background of destruction across Europe and Southeast Asia, UNESCO was established with the aim of promoting peace, intercultural understanding, and humanitarianism through international cooperation in education, sciences, art, and culture.

The promotion of culture and the arts was a reaction to the destruction caused by the conflict, leading to the adoption of the World Heritage Convention in 1972 (‘Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage’).

This convention sought to protect and manage listed sites with technical and management expertise from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN, est. 1948), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS, est. 1965), and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICROM, est. 1956).

The influence of the World Heritage Convention has been palpable – especially in Western Europe and North America – with a significant ‘boom’ since the 1970s. Since the 1960s and 1970s in Britain, with membership of heritage organisations such as the National Trust and attendance figures at the British Museum increasing exponentially—with similar attendance figures associated with National Parks and Smithsonian Museums in the United States.

Public attendance of cultural history museums and heritage sites remain consistently popular, with museums and cultural heritage sites topping most national attendance registers (see for example Association for Scottish Visitor Attractions for data).

In the last 10 years, increased attention has been drawn to the impacts of climate change on cultural and natural heritage. This has most recently been highlighted in the Future of Our Past report by ICOMOS (2019) and the acknowledgement of cultural heritage impacts in Working Group Two of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report Six (IPCC, 2022). Links to these resources can be found below.

The video below provides an historical overview and considers the following discussion points:

  • What is international cultural heritage?
  • What role can cultural heritage play in IPCC reports?
  • How do we resolve issues of representation (power relations), a diversity of values (plurality) and climate risk (uncertainty)?

We encourage you to consider these questions as you watch the video.

Heritage management

How are heritage resources managed? What risks does climate change create for cultural heritage in both its tangible and intangible form? The most recognisable example of heritage management can be found in the UNESCO World Heritage Convention of 1972:

Protection and management of World Heritage properties should ensure that their Outstanding Universal Value, including the conditions of integrity and/or authenticity at the time of inscription, are sustained or enhanced over time.

This includes a comprehensive plan for each site on the World Heritage List to monitor, resource and preserve sites—including expert training for site management staff—thus achieving their safeguarding. The Budapest Declaration of 2002 recognised connection between heritage and sustainable development, including the necessary role of local communities in the management of heritage sites and the role of tourism in social and economic development.

Taking this further, the Amsterdam Conference on Linking Universal Values and Local Values recommended consistent local participation to enable the local value of place. This, in turn, recognises the importance of local values in the management of World Heritage Sites in what is termed the “fifth C” of the “Five Cs” strategic objectives from the World Heritage Convention: credibility, conservation, capacity-building, communication, and community.

Further readings & resources

ICOMOS Futures of Our Past:

IPCC Assessment Report Six:

Hambrecht, G. and Rockman, M., 2017. International approaches to climate change and cultural heritage. American Antiquity82(4), pp.627-641. Open Access

Harrison, R., 2013. Heritage: Critical Approaches. Routledge.

3.2 South Africa: Historical Injustice and Elandskloof

Taking into account histories, livelihoods and likely climate change impacts to support forgotten communities in Elandskloof

“Heritage is fluid and complex, it is political in every sense. The work of heritage allows difficult conversations to take place in imaginative ways, allowing for history to be understood as being in the present”  -Prof Siona O’Connell, International Co-investigator, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

In South Africa, the scars of inequality and social engineering that characterised the apartheid system persist despite nearly three decades of democracy.

Injustice through forced land ownership changes, brought violent race-based removal of settlements across the Cape Flats. The legacy of historical injustice still affects today as Elandskloof is impoverished in lacking infrastructure, including little formal housing.

The study of vulnerable and forgotten communities – single sites in particular – is therefore utterly crucial. Forgotten communities require context-specific approaches to support them taking into account histories, livelihood portfolios, and likely climate change impact.

About Elandskloof

Established as a mission station by the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in 1861, families from the surrounding area were attracted to settle by the dream of autonomy and dignity – title to a small plot of land, the right to graze your cattle in the surrounding veld, and a community of faith gathered under the wing of the church.

Elandsklowers harvested buchu (Agathosma betulina), kept vegetable gardens, grazed cattle, and worked as seasonal laborers on the surrounding farms. The betrayal, when it came, was dramatic, unexpected, and intimate. In 1961 the DRC sold the land out from underneath them. Residents who were children at the time tell of going to school in the. morning, and returning to find the bulldozers at work on their homes.

Then, like the estimated 3.5 million people in South Africa who suffered forced removal under apartheid, they drifted into the surrounding towns and the dystopian dormitory settlements of the Cape Flats.

In 1996, Elandskloof hit news headlines as the first successful land claim in a newly democratic South Africa. Seventy-six families returned to Elandskloof.

However, over the coming decades, the contradictions in a deeply flawed restitution process came to the fore: land without the capital to develop it, and a group of claimants many decades removed from a meaningful relationship with the business of rural livelihoods, carrying the scars of the struggle for survival under apartheid. In 2005, the Elandskloof Communal Property Association was placed under administration. Today, Elandskloof is an impoverished rural ghetto without infrastructure, and with little formal housing.

Layered onto these traumatic events as an unanticipated and largely indecipherable process has been the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Southern Africa, and the Western Cape, in particular, has been described as a climate change hot-spot, with evidence of warming above the global average.

A rapidly changing climate

The annual average temperature across South Africa in 2019 was around 1.1°C warmer than the average for the period of 1981-2010.

There has also been an increasing trend in extreme temperatures (maximum temperatures) by 0.1-0.3°C a decade across the Western Cape between 1931 and 2020 (South Africa Weather Service, 2020).

There is medium confidence that there has been a long-term decline in soil moisture (increase in aridity) throughout the twenty-first century in west-southern Africa as a result of decreasing precipitation and increased temperatures.

In South Africa the number of droughts have increased by 220% between 1961 and 2016, as a result of anthropogenic forcing (IPCC- AR6).

Food Heritage and Sense of Place

This study foregrounds the importance of culture as central to understanding ways of being.

Cultural scholars and practitioners respond and intervene in creative and productive ways to social contexts and social realities, drawing attention to the lived, material, and embodied realities and crises of the contemporary moment. In the global south and Africa, cultural studies that focus on understanding the human and colonial afterlives provide a framework that allows a critical, immediate and urgent analysis of the world. A focus on food heritage in Elandskloof explores the intimately embodied and everyday aspects of some dauntingly high-level concerns – ideas around culture, identity, history, descendancy, and production in the face of climate change.

We are what we eat goes the platitude. Food plays a central role in all our lives, what we grow, eat and share forms a bond to the land and each other. In rural settlements reliant on agriculture food is a central pillar to the community.

Preparing and sharing food is a ritual through which we build and repair relationships, and nurture those that we care for. Food heritage is interesting because it takes us to such an intimately embodied and everyday aspect of some dauntingly high-level concerns – ideas around culture, identity, history, descendency, and genealogy.

The tangled food heritages of the Cape reference indigenous foodways, the slave diaspora established by the Dutch, missionary proselytization, British colonialism, apartheid segregation and forced removals, and the ambiguities of post-apartheid reconciliation and restitution.

But in Elandskloof food heritage provides a narrative of both hope and loss.

Rebuilding traditional knowledge

The forced removal of the residents during apartheid had a devastating impact on the intergenerational knowledge system in this community. This traumatic dispossession allowed for some practices which took place before the forced removals to disappear. This loss of knowledge is evident from the conversations with the community members. More specifically, Elandsklowers could live sustainably from homegrown crops before the forced removals. This dependency on homegrown crops becomes significant in understanding how other knowledges were created such as recipes. This community currently remains vulnerable as these knowledges and practices seem to disappear with the older generation.

Hybrid knowledge

Can a community recreate lost indigenous knowledge and incorporate new information?

Although Elandskloof is struggling, there is evidence that local and shared knowledge played an important role in adapting to the changing climate but at a very minimal level. Residents recognised that the drought has become an ideal climate in which Buchu and other crops could flourish however, this process is once again hindered by deep divisions within the community. The community has also recognised that they require further knowledge around soil quality and climatic changes to fully benefit from the available land that is still accessible to them.

Questions around heritage surfaces within this community in various ways. The preservation of their tangible heritage has become a point of concern for some residents. At the heart of the community lies the remnants of two-valued buildings, the church, and the community hall or school building.  which was part of the original construction when the Elandskloof as a missionary town was established. These buildings are recognised by the community as valuable sites in which learning and worship still take place. These buildings also serve as an important space where residents can find common ground through shared practices such as worship, the hosting of bazaars, and, more importantly, a place for commemorating the past (events are often held by local community leaders in which they try and prompt dialogue on Elandskloof’s history).

What became more prominent, however, is the loss of intangible heritage. Interviews with residents revealed that there is a great loss of intergenerational knowledge due to forced removals. The violent separation of this community has interrupted important practices which depended on generational knowledge passed from father to son or from mother to daughter. One example of these practices includes the importance of food heritage. Residents corresponded that they try and live from what they grow in their gardens, this practice is now only seasonal and stands in stark contrast to before the forced removals (this is confirmed through archive research conducted in the Dutch Reformed Church archives). Most of the recipes that were collected through each visit existed only through memory and were all handed down from mother to daughter. These recipes were designed to be accommodating to the type of crops cultivated in the Elandskloof community.

Many of the residents expressed the need for valuable helpful data on climate and agriculture.

While Elandskloof is still under administration which prohibits the cultivation of the existing orchard, some community members have collectively planned new areas for harvesting on the land for Elandskloof

It is evident from visits that the community would benefit from access to climactic information, including this information with some of the indigenous knowledges would be beneficial and could promote a new sense of cohesion in the community. Currently the question of land is still a contentious point within the community.

The Future

The future of Elandskloof remains uncertain for the residents. While some responded hopeful with renewed efforts around agricultural cultivation, there was a sincere concern toward the future of Elandskloof. Most residents expressed that the future of Elandskloof is reliant on the new generation who, according to older residents, show little interest in the legacy of Elandskloof. Residents in Elandskloof prioritise day-to-day planning rather than long term planning however there is a concern for climactic threats in the future.

Currently the residents have remarked some drastic seasonal changes such as re-occurring veld fires as well as higher snow-fall in winter months.

The residents however have not yet adapted to these changes. In some instances it was remarked that the out of the ordinary dry seasons have had some benefit in the cultivation of Buchu and that this specific indigenous crop thrives in these conditions. Current community driven projects have been focused on the planning of new crop cultivation which includes the planting of Rooibos Tea, watermelon, green beans and protea (also known as “tolbos”). They are still unsure which crops the soil will support. The new crops will have a direct effect on food heritage and offer an opportunity to rebuild lost food knowledges. The intention of the planting of these new crops is aimed at uplifting the current state of Elandskloof in hopes of returning to a new self-sustaining community. Some of the community plans include the use of some of the natural water sources in the area, the main source being a river which currently runs through Elandskloof.

Study Recommendations

Policy makers such as Cape Nature are urged to approach members of this community for more inclusive decision making, specifically on the decisions which apply to the Cederberg Nature Reserve. While Elandskloof has attempted to independently manage some of the available opportunities such as the implementation of new small-scale farms on available plots of land, this process has been hindered by the lack of funds and inter-community disputes on decision making. This community will benefit from any assistance which could be provided on any environmental changes. This will assist with the community’s strategy to currently complete agricultural projects which will have a beneficial impact on Elandskloof not only in returning to self-sustainability but also towards the recovering and creation of indigenous knowledges.

Click here to explore more about Elandskloof: A Chronology of Loss

This is one of the ArcGIS story map series from the CRITICAL project. Dr Rowan Jackson set up the story map from the South Africa case study provided by Prof Siona O’Connell and Dominique Wnuczek-Lobaczewski  (nee Niemand).

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