TEXT Louise do Rosário
Global Heritage Fund preserves and grows heritage sites around the World
A global non-government organisation is using its cultural knowledge, technology and partnership with local communities to preserve heritage sites in China and elsewhere. Modest in size but nimble and innovative in its approach, Global Heritage Fund (GHF) has pursued almost 30 projects in 20 countries, including several in China.
Since it was founded in San Francisco in 2002, GHF has raised US$40 million from private individuals and corporations in the US and leveraged the funds to raise a further US$50 million. It has worked in Afghanistan, Nepal, India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Romania, Greece and Latin America, including Peru, Colombia and Guatemala.
GHF created its China Heritage Programme in 2002. Since then, it has run projects in Lijiang, Yunnan province; Foguang Temple in Shanxi province; Pingyao Ancient City, also in Shanxi: and the Dali Dong village in Guizhou.
“Culture heritage sites are often the most valuable, untapped resource a community has. We partner with local communities to conserve and promote their heritage, creating win-win solutions for our shared history and these impoverished communities,” said Stefaan Poortman, Chief Executive Officer at Global Heritage Fund. “At GHF, we believe leveraging heritage as an economic asset is the best way to preserve it for the long term. That’s why we work to empower communities as stewards of their heritage.”
In early September this year, GHF held a presentation at the Royal Geographic Society in Hong Kong to report on its latest work. It established an office in the city in 2016 as a registered charity, following on a similar charity based in the UK. It does not take on projects in the US or western Europe; instead, it reserves its energy and resources for heritage sites in countries of economic need.
“We are doing venture philanthropy,” said Poortman. “We bring investment and technical expertise to help threatened or endangered sites around the world. Our methodology is planning, conservation, community development, and strategic partnership. The sites are assets and will be there in 100-200 years after our work is done.”
What distinguishes GHF is that it aims not only to preserve the site but also create a model that will ensure economic sustainability. This means inspiring the local community to take part and continue the project after GHF leaves; its average length of involvement at a project site is five to seven years.
Poortman said that, in the area surrounding some of their projects, many people live on US$1-3 a day. “If you are living like that, it is very hard to understand the importance of preservation.” So GHF involves the local communities in the projects and gives them economic incentives. It also provides training programmes, such as evening literacy classes for 400 people who live in a remote jungle in Guatemala, three days’ distance from the nearest town.
These heritages sites are under threat from many quarters. One is natural disasters like typhoons, hurricanes, flood and earthquakes.
One example was the Gorkha earthquake that struck Nepal on 25 April 2017, killing nearly 9,000 people and injuring nearly 22,000. It destroyed many buildings that were centuries old, including UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Katmandu Valley, such as stupas and famous temples. GHF has been working there to reconstruct old buildings and temples.
Another threat is man-made, like war. The wars in Iraq and Syria, for example, have damaged or destroyed many historic sites, such as Palmyra in Syria. During the Vietnam War, US bombing destroyed many historic sites in the country. In Afghanistan, when they were in power, the Taliban destroyed historic sites they consider idolatrous, such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001.
A third threat is rapid urbanisation, which demolishes monuments that stand in the way of desired projects. A fourth is an excess of visitors, now being experienced by Venice, Barcelona, Angkor Wat and some sites in China. This year, residents of Venice and Barcelona have taken to the streets to protest, saying that tourists are driving them out of their homes and favoured places.
How to Choose Sites
Poortman said that GHF selected its sites out of the more than 1,000 chosen by UNESCO as world heritage sites. “We believe in sites with significance and of which the government takes notice. We look for local leadership. There must be a community living around the site and opportunities for funding and partnership.”
One benefit of UNESCO recognition is that it makes the site famous, providing a source of visitors, local and foreign. But, Poortman said, it would be wrong to assume that such a listing guaranteed funds and planning for them. “UNESCO funding is not enough. We invest in the long term.”
GHF must bring its entrepreneurial expertise and find a sustainable model for each site. It has worked on several projects in Turkey, including Gobekli Tepe in the southeast Anatolia region, 12 km northeast of the city of Sanliurfa. “This is the oldest ceremonial site ever found in the world, dating back to 9,500 BC,” said Poortman. “It was built by hunters and gatherers.”
Another project is the Amer Fort in Jaipur, Rajasthan in western India. It is the second most visited tourist site in the country, after the Taj Mahal. Built in the Hindu style, it used marble and red sandstone and overlooks Maota Lake. As it was used by the Rajput Maharajas, it is also known as Amer Palace.
The problem there is too many visitors. “It needs better tourism management, community development and traffic management,” said Poortman. “We have finished a management plan and are presenting it to the city government.”
Projects in China
GHF has been active in China since 2002. As one of the oldest civilisations in the world, it has thousands of historical monuments.But few countries in history have had the same pace of urbanisation over the last 40 years. During this process, preservation of ancient sites was often not the priority of the local government, which wanted to build new roads and railways, housing and industrial and commercial buildings.
“It suffers from uneven and ineffective use of resources,” GHF said. “GHF has responded by leveraging funding for planning and community-based activities into government co-funding for the preservation, conservation and restoration of protected heritage sites. It has also invested in site-related development issues, including urban regeneration, inner-city poverty, rural transformation and ethnic pride,’ it said.
“Sites were often vulnerable and overlooked,” said Li Kuanghan, director of the China Heritage Program for GHF. She joined GHF in 2008 and manages all of its conservation projects in China. Before that, she worked as a consultant for the Getty Conservation Institute’s China Principles Project.
“In Lijiang (Yunnan province), we did conservation and empowered the owners to fight commercialisation,” she said. One site they worked on was the Foguang Temple in Wutai county, Shanxi province. Its main hall was built in 857 AD, during the Tang dynasty; it is the second earliest preserved timber structure in China. Li said that the temple was ‘rediscovered’ in 1937 by Liang Sicheng, one of the first architectural historians in China to have received training in the west. He saw drawings of the structure from the wall paintings in the Mogao Grottoes, which led him to the site. The temple is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Since 2007, GHF has been working with the city government of Pingyao, also in Shanxi province. This ancient city has a history of 2,700 years and has well-preserved city walls, constructed in 1370, the third year of the Hongwu Emperor. They measure 12 metres high, with a perimetre of 6,000 metres.
“It is one of the best-preserved historic cities in China, with its wall intact,” said Li. “That is very rare with the pace of modernisation. The business people of Shanxi were very capable, despite the limited living environment. They made a living from trading all over the country, and their business network reached as far as Russia, Mongolia and Japan.”
Pingyao’s peak was during the Qing dynasty, when it was one of the most important financial centres in the country, with 20 financial institutions. It declined from the end of the Qing, largely due to the development of modern banks.
“The centre is a well-developed tourist area,” said Li. “There are 30,000-40,000 people living in other areas of the historic walled city, untouched by tourism and many of the 3,000 historic courtyard homes are falling apart and decaying.”
GHF joined with the city government, Tongji University in Shanghai and UNESCO in Beijing to provide funds and technical aid to private owners to restore their homes and use them as they wish, as long as they do not damage the integrity of the architecture. “This programme is in the fourth year. We have done 100 courtyards so far and choose about 20 per year.” In 2015, the project won a UNESCO Asia Pacific award.
GHF is also involved in a Dali Dong village in Guizhou province in southwest China. The mountainous province is home to 30 minorities.
“This village is very remote and was not conquered and made part of the Chinese empire until the early Qing dynasty,” said Li. “It is remote and well preserved. Such a place is rare in China. We want to preserve the natural landscape, architecture, rice terraces and way of life.”
The Dong women are skilled in making textiles in a traditional way. GHF has helped to market them in Shanghai to a global audience and invited two of the women to Beijing; it was the first time they had left the village.
Turning to Macao’s efforts in preserving its cultural heritage, Li said, “The Macao government is putting in quite a bit of effort in heritage conservation, building a reputation and attracting more tourists who will visit Macao for its cultural attractions. Preceded by its casino fame, the emergence of Macao’s historic city center as a World Heritage Site is a welcome development.”