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UNESCO envoys meet to update ‘intangible heritage’ list

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 21, 2011 - 19:36

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PARIS (AFP) ― Mongolian calligraphy, Armenian fertility rites or French horsemanship? Envoys meet this week to decide which of 84 traditions should join UNESCO’s list of protected “intangible heritage.”

The UN cultural agency suspended much of its work this month after the United States suspended funding in a row over Palestinian membership, but delegates will still meet in Bali between Nov. 22 and 29.

There, they will ponder which local traditions merit inclusion on the organization’s list of practices with world cultural importance and which should therefore be protected and nurtured for future generations.

“The idea is not just to draw up some kind of tourist handbook, but to ensure these activities continue to be performed in the way they have for generations,” said Cecille Duvel, head of UNESCO’s intangible heritage unit.

Delegates to the Indonesian paradise island for the week-long meeting will have a rich cultural menu to digest, as they decide which new candidates get to join the 215 practices already given the UN seal of approval.

Armenia, for example, will be promoting “Vardavar,” a water festival in honour of the pagan love goddess Astghik. On her day, Armenian children mark the harvest season by throwing water over passers-by.

Host nation Indonesia will demonstrate “Saman” or the “Dance of a Thousand Hands” ― which comes from Bali’s neighbor Sumatra and is largely carried out by dancers hunched on their knees or haunches and gesticulating.

But, given that UNESCO is deep in crisis over a vote by member states to admit Palestine, which triggered a U.S. funding boycott, doesn’t the body have more important tasks at hand than studying, say, Emirati children’s games?

“Most of the funding comes from the host nation, Indonesia. So, in fact, these measures have not had an immediate effect on the operating budget of the committee,” Duvelle told AFP in Paris, before the envoys set off.

Eighty countries already have one or more of their traditional artistic or cultural practices recognized by the committee, although not all benefit from the same level of attention or protection.

Of the 84 practices under review in this sixth meeting of the committee, 23 are in the category calling for “urgent protective measures” to save them from dying out in their current, and presumably authentic, form.

Mongolia is in particular difficulty in this regard, and is seeking global recognition for its traditional methods of training adolescent camels, writing, dancing the “Tsam” and singing “Jangar” epics.

Brazil will counter with the “Yaokwa,” a traditional dance of the isolated Enawene Nawe people of Mato Grosso state, which goes beyond entertainment and brings order to society and to the broader cosmos.

Entrants in other categories are in less urgent need of protection, but seek the prestige of joining the list and perhaps hope to attract some tourism.