Report on IAL seminar on heritage and sustainability, 29 March 2022

Posted on: April 4, 2022 by

How do we balance the need to protect our inherited past with the demands of contemporary life and the interests of future generations? Can economic imperatives align with sustainability objectives or are they destined always to conflict? These were two of the key questions addressed in the IAL’s first seminar on the theme of sustainability, held on 29th March and expertly moderated by IAL friend and solicitor, Meera Karan.

Issues ranged from the destruction of indigenous heritage in Australia to the imminent threats faced by the city of Venice. Despite the diversity of topics, some common themes emerged including a worryingly disjointed approach and a lack of transparency in decision-making. This was in evidence in the widely reported Rio Tinto case involving the demolition of ancient indigenous rock art in Western Australia, discussed by barrister Dr Stephen Churches, as well as in the approach to cultural heritage in Spain where the division of responsibilities between regional and national government leaves room for confusion and uncertainty. Fascinating examples were provided by Marta Suárez-Mansilla, Spanish lawyer and Founder & CEO of Art World Law.

The scale of the impact of climate change was brought into sharp relief by Anna Somers Cocks, former Chair of Venice in Peril Fund and Founder, The Art Newspaper, who described the perilous prospects for the city of Venice where the results of flooding now pose an imminent and existential threat.

Infrastructure planning must inevitably play a crucial role in mitigating the effects of the climate crisis. Jill Campion, University of Cambridge, described how, despite sustainability controls being embedded into in planning legislation in the UK, cultural heritage often remains vulnerable. This was amply demonstrated in the example of the Heathrow third runway project. It was suggested that only a fundamental move away from the current prioritisation of economic interests above all others, including heritage protection, would pave the way for a more protective environment for cultural heritage going forward.

Sustainable tourism and heritage in the Middle East was described by Fionnuala Rogers, Consultant, Constantine Cannon and Founder and Director, Canvas Art Law. Some interesting examples include the Al Ain Oasis in Abu Dhabi and the AlUla project which forms a central part of Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision.

A particular focus in the Middle Eastern region is on intangible cultural heritage (ICH), which was the subject of a presentation by Professor Federico Lenzerini, Professor of International Law and Human Rights at the Department of Political and International Sciences of the University of Siena and Rapporteur of the International Law Association’s Committee on the Implementation of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. ICH can make a vital contribution to all three cornerstones of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental, serving to develop and sustain the relationship between peoples and their cultures.

Whilst the issues around sustainable cultural heritage are diverse and complex, the overall message could not have been clearer: inaction in the face of the climate emergency is not an option if cultural heritage is to be safeguarded and solutions can only lie in a multi-disciplinary, global and consistent effort.

Image: Flooding outside St Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Pedro Szekely, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons