Preserving Suriname’s “Outstanding Universal Value”
Last year when I went to Suriname for the first time ever, even the worldliest among my friends and family struggled to put the small former Dutch colony on a map. Suriname, along with Guyana to its West and French Guiana to its East, make up the “Guianas” a geographic region in north-eastern South America, considered culturally part of the Caribbean. Suriname is a fascinating country, boasting spectacular natural and cultural attractions. While it may be the smallest country in South America, it boasts a whopping 95% forest cover—the highest in the World, and its population, a little over half a million, is considered one of the most ethnically and culturally varied in the World.
My colleagues and I were in Suriname to discuss a new development program with national authorities to support the urban rehabilitation of the historic centre of Paramaribo. In 2002, the city was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, a coveted list of cultural and natural sites considered to be of “Outstanding Universal Value” and as such deemed deserving of protection as part of what the World Heritage Convention calls the “world heritage of mankind as a whole”.
In addition to demonstrating extraordinary cultural or natural values, countries signed up to the World Heritage Convention who seek inclusion of their natural and cultural sites on the list must also demonstrate that a site satisfies criteria of authenticity and integrity, as well as having a robust management plan in place. To that end, Paramaribo officials through the Built Heritage Foundation Suriname (SGES) documented the outstanding aspects of their historic capital, and subsequently produced the Paramaribo World Heritage Management Plan for 2011-2015.
Today, much of the original distinguishing urban fabric of the historic centre remains intact, but many are now in a bad state of repair and have been abandoned due to the lack of commercial and social activity in the city’s historic centre. Furthermore, the characteristic timber buildings are vulnerable to fire and the city faces new threats from large developments which promise economic prosperity, but threaten to undermine the integrity of the historic centre.
UNESCO has recognised the progress of the Suriname authorities in adopting the Management Plan and an Emergency Action Plan, but has reiterated the need to strengthen the Management Authority and provide funding for urgently needed conservation and restoration works of monumental buildings. They have also expressed concerns about potential private sector real-estate development at the waterfront, and have requested that the Authorities provide an update on the state of conservation at the end of 2017.
Recognising the persistent nature of the challenges of revitalising the city and bringing economic growth to its population, but also the critical importance of safeguarding its history and culture, the Suriname authorities and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) agreed on a plan of works to reenergize Paramaribo, a move that has been welcomed by UNESCO. And after an intense year of planning and preparation by Suriname officials and a multi-disciplinary IDB team, the “Paramaribo Urban Rehabilitation Program” was approved by IDBs Board of Directors last week. The Program will invest US$20 million in a series of projects including:
- Improvement of public and green spaces;
- Rehabilitation of historic buildings;
- Provision of new opportunities for civil society participation;
- Integration and economic development;
- Improvements to mobility and parking; and
- Institutional strengthening
Notwithstanding the objectives of the Program which seek to rehabilitate the historic sites of the city, any works in a sensitive cultural site carry with them certain risks. As such, ensuring the inclusion of robust safeguards was a priority for the IDB at the earliest stages of preparation. In keeping with its safeguard policies, which establish that the Bank will not support projects which damage cultural sites and that appropriate environmental and social assessment must be undertaken to identify and assess impacts on and risks to the cultural site, the Bank asked for an Environmental and Social Analysis (ESA) to be undertaken, focused on the various infrastructure components of the Program (in particular the improvements to the waterfront area, and the rehabilitation and reconstruction of iconic buildings in the historic core). The ESA focused on three potential impacts and risks identified during the Bank’s safeguard screening process, namely:
- Potential negative impacts of undertaking construction and reconstruction works in a sensitive critical cultural site, including the potential risks to the integrity and authenticity of the UNESCO World Heritage site;
- Temporary and/or long-term impacts on local livelihoods (both positive and negative); and
- Risks posed by coastal flooding of the Suriname River likely to be exacerbated over time with climate change.
As a result of the assessment, the Program now has a framework for environmental and social management. Over the coming weeks and months, the IDB will be supporting the Suriname authorities as they begin to build up the Built Heritage Foundation Suriname who will act as the implementing agency for the program, including hiring environmental and social specialists to build on this framework and to develop and implement the environmental and social mitigation and management plans.
Finding the balance between heritage conservation and development is a long-standing challenge worldwide. The hard work starts now!
To learn more about IDB Safeguard Policies and Cultural Heritage, read “Managing the Impacts of IDB Projects on Cultural Heritage” a publication which helps explain how potential impacts on cultural heritage should be addressed in the context of IDB projects.
Do you have any stories of working in urban development projects in natural and cultural heritage sites? Let us know in the comments!
Top photo: Presidential Palace and the Ministry of Finance building in Paramaribo, Suriname
Photo credit: Karel Donk, www.kareldonk.com