Cultural heritage and natural heritage: towards an integrated legal approach?

Authors and Affiliations: 

Dra. Lise Vandenhende, researcher University Ghent, Faculty of Law, Department for Public Law, Centre for Environmental Law

Corresponding author: 
Lise Vandenhende

In this presentation we will explore the legal cultural and natural heritage protection instruments with respect to landscapes. Landscapes could easily be considered natural as well as cultural heritage. The division between natural and cultural heritage was created in the 20th century and results from the Western attitude towards heritage, that was blind for the important interactions between natural and cultural heritage. This point of view is clearly shown in international, European and regional legislation. Usually they solely address natural or cultural heritage, but never both. At the regional level, the protection of immovable heritage is laid down in the Immovable Heritage Decree, while the protection of natural heritage is addressed in the Nature Conservation Decree. This derives from a dualistic point of view, in which cultural heritage can be seen as anything made by man or that has a certain value assigned by men and natural heritage as the residual category. However, this point view is difficult to maintain. For example, in Europe only few (or none at all) landscapes would be considered heritage, since landscapes and larger units that are affected by humans to some extent, would in fact not be eligible. Moreover, the difference between nature and culture is a matter of human appreciation, as a result of which nature is constantly in relation to culture. This entails that also natural sites of particular importance for a specific culture should be considered cultural heritage.

Therefore, different legal European and international initiatives were taken to integrate the protection of natural and cultural heritage, on the basis of which cultural landscapes can be protected because of its natural and cultural values. For example, internationally, the World Heritage Convention may be cited as the most important initiative to promote the protection of natural and cultural heritage. Above, the protection of natural heritage has already shown that cultural aspects at least must be taken into account. An example is the conservation of wetlands based on the Ramsar Convention, which made it clear that an integrated approach to heritage protection is the key to an effective and sustainable heritage policy. The protection regime of the treaty proved too strict and did not take into account the importance of different traditions of affected people (such as fisheries). At the European level, the European Landscape Convention should be mentioned, clearly recognizing the relationship between natural and cultural heritage. In Flanders the immovable heritage decree starts from the idea that nature can be cultural heritage, as a part of a larger whole or as a monument itself. Despite this, the relationship between natural and cultural heritage is however less recognised and the Immovable Heritage Decree does not really include natural values. Moreover, the possibility to protect cultural landscapes because of its natural values (as was possible by virtue of the Landscape Decree) is not included in the Immovable Heritage Decree anymore. One could argue that natural values could be seen as a part of the scientific value. However, the preparatory works clarify that the legislator aimed at the protection of landscapes because of its cultural values, rather than its natural values. Therefore natural values do not fall within the scope of the Immovable Heritage Convention and cannot be taken into account.
Also the Nature Conservation Decree acknowledges the connection of nature and culture. The Nature Conservation Decree describes nature as the living organisms, their habitats, the ecosystems they are part of and the associated ecological processes associated with them, whether or not they occur in connection with human activities. The preparatory works clarify that nature is, in the first place, more than the pristine and can also arise in connection with human action. This endorses the fact that almost all landscapes are influenced by human actions. However, the Nature Conservation Decree only aims at protecting nature and the natural environment. Cultural heritage will therefore not be able to enjoy additional protection under the Nature Conservation Decree.

The main reason for this strict division lies within the fact that the competence for the protection of cultural landscape is separated from the competence for nature management. Therefore, in order the minimize conflicts between nature and cultural heritage, the obvious way to go is to integrate landscape protection and nature management. Yet it should be kept in mind that the link between natural and cultural heritage does not apply to all heritage. Not all natural heritage will be connected with cultural heritage and not all cultural heritage will be determined by natural aspects. Evidently monuments and built sites are less susceptible to input from nature conservation. Mainly in the protection of landscapes, which contain both an important cultural and natural component, natural and cultural values will get into touch. For this reason, a total integration of the competences for natural and cultural heritage would not be advisable. As such the competence for the protection of landscapes should be shifted towards nature conservation, while the protection of built heritage can remain a part of the spatial planning.


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