Climate change, heritage and identity

A recent article co-authored with colleagues from the University of East Anglia, Kenyatta University and Ohio University addresses the threat posed by climate change to cultural heritage in Africa, and links this issue with climate justice.

Africa is home to some of humanity’s most important and spectacular cultural heritage – from archaeological sites across the continent that reveal when and how we evolved as a species, to the Pyramids of Egypt, the magnificent rock art of the Sahara, and the physical legacies of the great historical civilisations of West Africa, to name just a few examples.

This physical heritage is at risk from a host of threats, including conflict, looting, natural resource extraction, weather and climate extremes, and neglect. Climate change adds another dimension of risk, acting as a threat multiplier to heritage sites in Africa. However, while there is a growing body of literature addressing the impacts of climate change on heritage globally, a 2017 study estimated that just 1 per cent of this literature focuses on Africa, the birth place of humanity and home to some of its great cutures and civilisations.

We go a small way to addressing this imbalance in a recent paper in Azania, in which we discuss the potential implications of climate change for different types of heritage in Africa, using case studies of specific sites and aspects of this heritage. We’ve also penned a commentary on the paper in The Conversation.

Different types of heritage – tangible and intangible

Our paper discusses climate change threats to physical or ‘tangible’ heritage including built heritage, rock art, and biocultural heritage that consists of managed landscapes and ecosystems. It also addresses how climate change threatens ‘intangible’ heritage, which includes knowledge, skills and practices that are central to people’s livelihoods and, in some cases, cultural identities. Tangible and intangible heritage are not always easily separated. For example, knowledge and skills that constitute intangible heritage may be related to the maintenance of built infrastructure or managed environments that themselves are critical aspects of cultural heritage.

Climate change as a threat to tangible heritage

Perhaps the most obvious climate change threats to African heritage are those related to sea-level rise and the periodic or permanent inundation of low-lying coastal areas where tangible heritage is located. Sea-level rise and any climate-related exacerbation of coastal extremes will also accelerate the retreat of shorelines, which may be further enhanced by subsidence and modification associated with localised human activities and urbanisation. Sites such as the great Roman cities of Leptis Magna and Sabratha on the Libyan coast, already at risk from conflict and neglect (the latter largely a result of the former), are at particular risk, as are many important sites in West and East Africa, and of course in the Nile Delta.

Physical heritage can also be damaged or destroyed by extremes such as storms, floods, droughts, temperature extremes and wildfires, all of which are increasing in frequency and/or severity as a result of climate change. Droughts and fires, the severity of which is increasing due to elevated temperatures and greater evapotranspiration, can affect biocultural heritage such as culturally significant forests and sacred groves, which are important for social, religious and medicinal purposes.

In the Sahara, rock art, consisting of paintings and engravings, has endured for many millennia because of the arid environment. Rock paintings are subject to erosion driven by physical, chemical and biological processes, all of which are influenced by climate and are thus sensitive to climate change. More frequent and severe heat extremes can enhance weathering associated with differential heating between different coloured pigments and pigments and the rock surface. The Sahara is already warming at around twice the regional average rate, and this trend is projected to continue. Daily maximum temperatures and direct heating of rock surfaces may be amplified further by projected reductions in cloud cover and atmospheric dust content. Stronger winds, which have been both observed and predicted in the Saharan summer, can increase erosion from sand abrasion. Any shift to more humid conditions, as has been projected by some models for parts of the central Sahara, is likely to increase physical, chemical and biological weathering of rock surfaces. Increased fire risk can also threaten rock art, and not just through extreme heat and soot deposition; at a site in Australia, ancient rock art was destroyed when a plastic walkway exploded during a bush fire.

Figure 1. Prehistoric painting of cattle at Rekeiz Lemgassem, Western Sahara, with flaking of rock surface. Photo: Nick Brooks.

Hazards such as floods can damage buildings and monuments, but climate change can also pose more indirect threats to built heritage. A reduction in rainfall and fish stocks in the Niger river region has reduced the quality of mud used for making traditional mud-bricks, whose cohesion is improved by the presence of fish bones. In addition, the impacts of a deteriorating climate on agricultural livelihoods and incomes means that people can no longer afford to maintain buildings in the traditional manner using high-quality materials. In the World Heritage Site of Djenne, famous for its traditional mud-brick or ‘adobe’ architecture, these problems are compounded by UNESCO’s restrictions on the use of novel repair materials and techniques.

Why worry about heritage?

Of course, phenomena such as sea-level rise and enhanced weather and climate extremes directly threaten human populations and the systems on which they depend. In this context, it might seem odd to focus on climate change as a threat to heritage, when more fundamental issues such as infrastructure, health and food security are at stake. However, loss of heritage has direct impacts on the people who manage and use it.

For example, all of the types of tangible heritage discussed above generate income from tourism and support local livelihoods. Natural heritage in the form of coastal wetlands serves physically to protect the coast and coastal communities from storms and storm surges. Sacred groves act as refuges for plant and animal species as a result of their protected status, whether formal or informal.

In addition, when physical heritage is destroyed, it is intangible as well as tangible heritage that is lost. For example, as people’s capacity to maintain and repair traditional mud-brick architecture is eroded, there is a risk that the knowledge and skills around traditional building techniques will also be lost. Intangible heritage associated with sacred groves may inclde rituals that contribute to community cohesion and identity, and act as a focus for the transmission of knowledge and learning. When these groves are lost, this important intangible heritage may also disappear, undermining community identity. Migration, particularly from rural areas to cities, can also erode intangible heritage, as knowledge and skills cease to be passed on to new generations in their original, local cultural contexts.

Some intangible heritage is fundamental to identity. In the paper, we discuss pastoralism as an example of such heritage. Pastoralism comprises a set of skills and practices passed down through generations, that enable people to live in marginal and highly variable environments. Pastoralists are under threat not just from climate change, but also from hostile government policies that privilege sedentary agriculture in pastoral areas, undermine traditional reciprocal arrangements between farmers and herders, and reduce grazing options as a result of agricultural expansion. Many governments view pastoralism as somehow ‘backward’ or ‘primitive’, and believe pastoralists should be settled and ‘civilised’ as part of the unstoppable march of progress. Not only is this historically, anthropologically and archaeologically illiterate, it also fails to recognise the resilience and adaptability inherent in pastoralism where it is supported, rather than undermined, by policy. More fundamentally, the coercive settling of pastoralists ignores and negates people’s identity as pastoralists.

The importance of heritage for identity means that climate change, and policies that ignore or deliberately undermine heritage, repesent a potentially existential threat to certain communities and cultures. Where climate change and responses to it mean that heritage, particularly intangible heritage, is lost, there is a risk that people’s individual and collective identities will be eroded or even erased. This risk is particularly acute where climate change and other pressures drive displacement and migration, breaking links between people and place, and between generations, meaning that intangible heritage ceases to be reproduced.

Assuming that people value their heritage and want to retain it, addressing climate change threats to heritage is an issue of climate justice, which recognises that climate change disporportionately affects those who are least responsible for it, and who often have the least capacity to adapt to it. Existential threats to people’s ways of life and cultural identities, arising from anthropogenic climate change caused predominantly by the actions of wealthy nations, and mediated by more localised social, economic and policital factors, are surely the epitome of climate injustice.

Preserving tangible heritage, and allowing intangible heritage to reproduce and evolve, has benefits beyond the communities who own or manage it. Heritage is key to collective memory, not just for specific cultures and communities, but for humanity as a whole. For example, the abundant rock art of the Sahara represents a rich and detailed record of human prehistory in North Africa since the end of the last ice age. It reminds us that the Sahara was once green, at a time (between about 10,000 and 5000 years ago) when the world was a very different place and the vast arid areas of today’s northern hemisphere sub-tropics were well-watered savannahs. This heritage shows us what climate change can look like. The rock art of the Sahara also frames an increasingly detailed picture, built up through decades of archaeological work, of how people responded to past extreme climatic and environmental change.

Some of the knowledge and information embodied in heritage may also have a practical function. Pastoralism in Africa today has its origins in the prehistoric Sahara, where it evolved as a response to deteriorating climatic conditions that favoured mobility to exploit scarce and variable resources. The Saharan archaeological record shows us that pastoralism represents a valid and highly successful form of adaptation to climatic deterioration – cattle are one of the most common themes in Saharan rock art. Rather than being dismissed as primitve and vulnerable, transitions to pastoralism may hold the key to adpating to climate change in some parts of Africa today, where conditions are likely to become too marginal for agriculture.

When cultures lose their memories, they lose their identities. When they lose knowledge that has allowed them to thrive in the environments in which they are embedded, they become less sustainable and thus more vulnerable. Preserving Africa’s heritage – not as a fixed relic of the past, but rather as something dynamic that can continue to evolve in response to climate change and other stresses – therefore is a fundamental aspect of climate justice. In addition, it helps us understand how society and culture has been shaped by our interactions with a dynamic environment. It even provides us with lessons about adaptation to the kinds of rapid and severe climate change that we are likely to experience over the coming decades. This needs to be recognised by governments, international institutions, and those involved in supporting resilience and adaptation, and ensuring that these activities embody principles of justice and equity.

Full references are given in the original paper. Don’t forget to see our commentary in the The Conversation. Please feel free to contact us if you would like to discuss this work or would like a pdf copy of the paper.

To cite the paper, use the following format:

Brooks, N., Clarke, J., Ngaruiya, G.W., and Wangui, E.E. 2020. ‘African Heritage in a Changing Climate’, Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 55, 3: 297–328. DOI: 10.1080/0067270X.2020.1792177.

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