Georgetown sites could qualify for inclusion on World Heritage List

By Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
March 11, 2001

A consultant is currently assisting the local UNESCO office to select heritage sites in Georgetown, to be included in a dossier for submission to the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), with a view to having the city inscribed on the World Heritage List.

Dr Ron van Oers, who leaves this week, said that one of the things which recommended Georgetown for possible selection as a World Heritage Site, was the fact that it possessed a unique urban plan.

"We are selecting Georgetown because of its cultural and historical significance, which of course is the urban layout of the city. The pattern of the city is related to the civil engineering structure which goes back to the 18th century, when the Dutch laid out the plantations on the banks of the Demerara River. Those plantations were eventually converted into urban landscape - what is now Georgetown. Those civil engineering structures are still to be found in the city. So that, in our view, is a special trump card for Georgetown."

In addition, he explained, there is a uniqueness about Guyanese architecture, which is a blend of British colonial architecture, West Indian influences and Creole craftsmanship. Describing this as another "trump card for Guyana," he said that these features were not found anywhere else in the region. The portions of Georgetown which would be included in the site description, therefore, were not just of cultural significance to the Guyanese people, but on account of their uniqueness, to the peoples of the world.

Inscription on the World Heritage List would open up possibilities for preservation funding, but Dr van Oers warned that, "it usually only comes around when there is a true commitment to preserve things... As long as legislation is non-existent or very poorly implemented, meaning that people are still allowed to tear down old buildings, not one single organisation or bilateral programme will fund the preservation of buildings."

Dr van Oers said that during the three weeks he had spent here, he had hoped to achieve consensus among stakeholders, such as the Georgetown municipality, the Ministry of Housing, the National Trust, UNESCO Commission and the Ministry of Culture.

While the various representatives had been supportive, he said, there was need for "total commitment." The people and the decision-makers in this process had to commit themselves to preserving the ancient part of Georgetown.

Certain elements of the dossier could be written now, he explained, but other aspects dealing with the management of the site, would have to be further sorted out.

Dr Van Oers acknowledged that in the case of Guyana some laws for the management of the site, such as the National Trust Act, were already in place, but he considered that there was need for amendments to that act, which had trivial fines, for example, for the tearing down of historical buildings.

"More important than the fines," he went on, "is the awareness of the people and the businessmen. At least in some areas of the town they should try to preserve and invest in those [older] buildings, instead of tearing them down and erecting new buildings. If you are going to erect new buildings, place the width according to certain standards, maintain the same height, use the same colour schemes; if it is possible use the same materials and also the same rhythm to maintain the image of the city. Going up five stories high is like disrupting the image."

Dr Van Oers visit, said Chairman of the Guyana UNESCO Commission Carmen Jarvis, was a follow-up to one made by Professor Herb Stovel, another UNESCO consultant, in 1998.

Stovel too had come to look at Georgetown as a possible cultural heritage site that could be inscribed on the World Heritage List. His conclusion was that certain parts of Georgetown could be nominated. Then in 1999 at the General Conference for UNESCO persons from the World Heritage Centre, including Dr Van Oers and the Dutch National Commission for UNESCO showed an interest in Georgetown and a decision was taken to follow up on Stovel's mission.

Dr Van Oers, who did his doctoral thesis on Dutch town planning overseas, stated that the Dutch Government, which had funded his visit to Guyana, was also willing to fund another mission through UNESCO later in the year to look specifically at the management aspect of the selected heritage site.

Asked how long the process would take for Georgetown to be inscribed on the World Heritage list, Dr van Oers replied that it was not a short process as one year might go into the selection of the site, and another two into the management aspect. In the case of Paramaribo, for example, the process began in 1994, although the groundwork which was required was greater than in the case of Georgetown.

He said that after the dossier had been submitted to ICOMOS, the advisory body to UNESCO on cultural heritage in Paris, a cultural specialist would come to Georgetown with the dossier in his hands to ensure that everything complied with what had been recommended.

Asked about constraints, Dr Van Oers said a very important one was the technical difficulties involved in conserving wooden structures in the tropics. Termites, the sun and humidity had left several beautiful monumental buildings in Georgetown dilapidated and on the verge of collapse. "It is very difficult for Georgetown and Guyana to maintain all these buildings," he observed, but "still some effort has to be made to at least do some minimal amount of maintenance... It would be very advisable that some funds and some means are reserved for this task."

Very important, he said is that Georgetown is a living city. UNESCO recognised the difficulties that related to the management and conservation of a living city, since people had social and economic needs, as well as the need for cultural continuity and development. It was usually much harder to conserve living cities and historic inner cities, than an ancient fortress or an ancient cathedral.