UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural, educational and scientific arm, has been protecting the world's cultural and natural heritage since 1972. But it was not until 2003 that it developed a legal framework for preserving endangered intangible heritage such as dance, oral traditions, music, rituals and traditional performing arts.
The Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, speaking recently in Abu Dhabi, said that he was "surprised, upon my arrival in UNESCO (in 1999), to note the relatively low priority given to living heritage compared to the strong focus on the tangible part of the world’s cultures”. In response, UNESCO adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003 and 114 countries have now signed up.
At its meeting in Abu Dhabi last week UNESCO's intergovernmental committee made the first additions to the List of Intangible Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding and to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Representative List now has 166 listings. Among the recent inclusions are the tango, India’s Ramman religious festival and France’s Aubusson tapestries.
Under the Convention signatory states undertake to 'take the necessary measures to ensure the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage present in its territory.' These steps can include education programs, documentation and requesting international assistance. Intangible heritage listed as "endangered" may also be eligible for financial assistance from UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage Fund. Elements currently on the endangered list include the Qiang New Year festival in China and the Cantu in paghjella: a 'secular and liturgical oral tradition of Corsica'. The Qian New Year festival was added after 'the 2008 Sichuan earthquake destroyed many of the Qiang villages and devastated the region put the New Year festival at grave risk.' In the Corsican case UNESCO notes that a 'sharp decline in intergenerational transmission caused by emigration of the younger generation and the consequent impoverishment of its repertoire' has placed paghjella at risk and warns that 'unless action is taken, paghjella will cease to exist in its current form, surviving only as a tourist product devoid of the community links that give it real meaning.'
For more information go here: UNESCO