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Transient Heritage
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One of the oldest, continuously cultivated terraced landscapes in the world, Honghe Rice Terraces in Yunnan, China, is a sight that inspires awe. It is an exquisitely wrought world made by hand which has endured for 1200 years. In June it was inscribed on the World Heritage list as a cultural landscape, marking the culmination of a ten-year process aimed at tapping the tourist potential of the region. In the lightning fast world of China, more change has probably occurred in this area in the past five years than in the past forty. It is hard to imagine how this living landscape will survive for another century, much less millennia. The challenge is not unique to the site, the region, or even China. Although there is much discussion about the benefits and challenges with World Heritage designation, arguably, the real problem is not with listing, but the increasingly perilous, ever-changing world in which heritage must exist.

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Cultivated over the past 1,300 years, the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces in China, are one of the oldest continuously cultivated terraced landscapes in the world.

Change, as the saying goes, is inevitable. The pace of change however is variable. In 1970, Alvin Toffler's book, Future Shock, was published and became a best seller. In it, Toffler lamented the "death of permanence," describing change as "avalanching upon our heads and [that] most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it." The result? Future Shock: "a time phenomenon, a product of the greatly accelerated rate of change in society. It arises from the superimposition of a new culture on an old one. It is culture shock in one's own society."

While some of the predictions were off base (we do not live in underwater cities—yet), much of it, especially when dealing with the break with the past, transient populations, and a throwaway society (even extending to the built environment), was spot on. Toffler wrote, "the shift toward transience is even manifest in architecture—precisely that part of the physical environment that in the past contributed mostly heavily to man's sense of permanence... we raze landmarks. We tear down whole streets and cities and put new ones up at a mind-numbing rate." Transience was to the 20th century, what fire was to the 19th. Important parts of our collective past were being crumpled up and thrown away. Globally there was an emerging interest in heritage conservation.

"Establishing an Effective System of Collective Protection"

On November 16, 1972, "Noting that the cultural heritage and the natural heritage are increasingly threatened with destruction, not only by the traditional causes of decay, but also by changing social and economic conditions which aggravate the situation with even more formidable phenomenon of damage or destruction" and that the "deterioration or disappearance of any item of the cultural or natural heritage constitutes a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations of the world," the United Nations National Scientific and Education Committee Organization (UNESCO) adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. What came to be known as "the Convention" recognized that "parts of the cultural or natural heritage are of outstanding interest and therefore need to be preserved as part of the world heritage of mankind as a whole." To that end the Convention was ratified in 1975, the Committee established in 1976, and the first sites inscribed in 1978.

From that initial list of a dozen properties, the list has mushroomed to 981 properties with 190 States Parties (or signatories) adhering to the Convention. While there is much debate over its effectiveness, if sheer numbers are a metric of "success," then the Convention has been a great one. Over the years, as the list expanded and evolved, so too has the understanding of heritage, management policies, stewardship, and local participation. Oddly, it could be argued that the success of the Convention in terms of the number of listings is as much a testament to the perniciousness of the threats that led to its initial creation, as it is to the benefits of listing.

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Many of the...

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