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New head of Unesco world heritage centre wants to put Africa on the map | Global development

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It covers 9 million sq miles (24m sq km) from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and from the Sahara in the north to Cape Point in the south. And in between lie some of the world’s most ancient cultural sites and precious natural wonders.

However, despite its vast size, sub-Saharan Africa has never been proportionately represented on Unesco’s world heritage list, its 98 sites dwarfed by Europe, North America and Asia.

Now, the first African to be made head of the world heritage centre has said that needs to change – and fast. Lazare Eloundou Assomo, a Cameroonian who led the reconstruction of the Timbuktu mausoleums after they were badly damaged in 2012 by Islamist fighters allied to al-Qaida, has said it will be a priority of his time in office.

“What we think has room for improvement is that, when you look at the list, you still, 50 years after [the signing of the world heritage convention], see that there are some regions of the world that are not equally represented in the list as compared to others,” he told the Guardian.

“This is something that we, together with the [Unesco] member states and other state parties, have … to address.”

Assomo, who started in his new job earlier this month, said small island developing states had also historically suffered from a disproportionately low number of recognised sites. Of the 27 countries with no sites of any kind on the Unesco list, only four are not either in Africa or classed as a small island state.

A photo of Lazare Eloundou Assomo
Lazare Eloundou Assomo says he learned the value of cultural heritage in the aftermath of conflict when he led Unesco’s reconstruction of Timbuktu’s mausoleums, which were damaged by Islamist fighters. Photograph: Unesco

At the other end of the spectrum, wealthy countries – such as Italy (58), China (56) and Germany (51) – have ratcheted up dozens of sites, making the most of the very tangible influx of money and tourism that comes from the more abstract notion of recognising a country’s heritage.

For Assomo, it is not a question of chasing numbers, but of using Unesco’s collective cultural and financial clout to help underrepresented countries overcome the lack of resources and expertise that has proved an obstacle in the complex and costly nomination process.

“The training and capacity-building of heritage experts is an area where we will have to put more emphasis [on] in the future to help address this imbalance,” said Assomo. Unesco would like to see greater cooperation between member states, he added, with countries in Europe and other regions helping to fund training programmes.

“Africa is the cradle of humankind. It has so many cultural, natural sites that are important, which people value a lot,” said Assomo. “But some categories of site in Africa are not necessarily the same type of categories that you find in other regions.”

The “sacred forests” of west Africa – patches of land preserved over countless generations because of their religious and cultural significance – were a good example, he said. According to a recent study in Togo, the forests are as environmentally important as they are culturally precious, and, on a continent bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, their protection is vital.

“Africa is today … on the frontline of the effect of climate change. This is also something … which makes us believe that mobilising our efforts for [existing] world heritage sites in Africa should be a priority,” said Assomo.

aerial shot of an old fortress on a peninsula
San Sebastian fort, which was built on the Island of Mozambique by the Portuguese colonial rulers in the 16th century. Photograph: Dmitry Malov/Alamy

Both natural habitats, such as the Niokolo-Koba national park in Senegal, and cultural treasures, such as Mozambique’s San Sebastian fortress, battered by increasingly intense cyclones and heavy rains, are vulnerable to the changing climate. Assomo, a former Unesco head representative in Mali, is particularly worried about the impact on Timbuktu, the fabled city in the Sahara – and world heritage site since 1988, which has been affected by long-term desertification.

“If we don’t do something about the effect of climate change, about the natural disasters [that] continue multiplying … If we don’t do something about the growing [number of] forest fires; if we don’t do something about hurricanes … these sites are going to disappear.

“Our responsibility is to work with countries to ensure that we maintain them and we preserve them and we pass them on to the next generation. So for me, it’s an urgent matter,” said Assomo.

Africa’s 98 world heritage sites range from the famous – Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kruger national park in South Africa – to the lesser-known, such as Koutammakou, the Land of the Batammariba, in Togo.

A family sitting outside a mud house with thatched towers
The Batammariba’s traditional fortified mud tower houses of Koutammakou in Togo.
Photograph: Godong/Alamy

Fifteen African sites make up nearly 30% of the “in danger” world heritage list, due to a variety of threats including poaching, illegal logging and conflict. One site that is not yet on the endangered list is Lalibela in north Ethiopia, a place of pilgrimage and home to 11 medieval monolithic cave churches carved out of the rock, which in recent weeks has been fought over by government forces and Tigrayan rebels.

Assomo said he could not comment on “national issues”. But whenever heritage sites became involved in conflict, Unesco has urged those in control to protect the sites from looting and vandalism, he said. Through his work in Timbuktu, where Unesco helped reconstruct the mausoleums wrecked in 2012, he has learned the value that cultural heritage can have in the aftermath of conflict.

He said: “[That work] has shown how culture and cultural heritage are important to help people recover from trauma, start having an economic living after the conflict, but also help bring back the social cohesion that was lost because of the conflict.”

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Kill the Bill and period protests: human rights this fortnight – in pictures | Global development

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‘No embargo’ on meetings with Putin, EU says

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EU leaders are free to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin despite his threats to start a new war with Ukraine, the EU foreign service has said. “There is no embargo on contacts and visits between member states and Russia. Each member state decides … on their own judgment,” the EU foreign service told EUobserver. The comment follows reports Croatia invited Putin to visit and that Hungary’s leader will meet him.

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Vulnerable Malians could ‘pay the price’ of heavy sanctions, warn aid groups | Global development

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More than a dozen aid organisations have called for humanitarian exemptions to heavy sanctions imposed on Mali after the military leadership postponed planned February elections.

The EU has announced support for the sanctions imposed earlier this month by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which include closing borders and a trade embargo.

But this week, 13 international groups working in Mali warned of devastating consequences for the population, a third of whom rely on aid.

Humanitarian access is hindered by the Malian interim authorities’ decision to reciprocate border closures with Ecowas member states, except Guinea.

Thousands of people demonstrated against the sanctions last week in the capital Bamako, carrying placards saying “down with Ecowas” and “down with France”.

The country is in the grip of the worst food insecurity in 10 years.

A joint letter signed by the NGOs, including the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Care and the Norwegian Refugee Council, said: “To continue their work effectively, humanitarian actors must have unfettered access for the transportation of life-saving goods including food and medicine, as well as guarantees that they can transfer funds into the country without violating the sanctions.”

Mali’s current insecurity dates back to early 2012 when northern separatists rebelled against the government. Islamist militants that initially allied with the separatists, including Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, ultimately hijacked the rebellion.

France, the former colonial ruler, made a military intervention in 2013 on the government’s side against the militants. The UN has also deployed an estimated 18,000 peacekeeping staff, in what was called its most dangerous mission.

The Malian military, led by Col Assimi Goïta, has conducted two coups in two years and reneged on promises to hold new elections. The junta’s most recent power grab, in May 2021, was the fifth coup since Mali’s independence in 1960 and it has been unwilling to commit to transition to civilian rule, despite international pressures.

Postponement of elections has been blamed on Islamist insecurity, an impasse that has deepened with the arrival of private military contractors belonging to the Russian mercenary firm Wagner Group. European states have condemned Wagner’s presence, concerned it will enable the military to hold on to power.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said this month that EU sanctions on Mali were in part in response to the involvement of Russian contractors. France is withdrawing troops, but 14 other EU members, led by Sweden, had established a taskforce to replace them in a three-year mandate. As tensions intensified over the Wagner Group, Sweden said last week that it had decided to withdraw its troops.

France, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has been vociferous in its support of sanctions but Russia and China have blocked the UN security council’s move to follow suit.

Ecowas has frozen financial aid and Malian assets at the Central Bank of West African States.

Elena Vicario, director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Mali, said: “Malians are already bearing the brunt of the humanitarian catastrophe, punctuated by horrifying attacks against civilians. Sanctions must not hold us back from delivering essential assistance in a country where drought, rising insecurity, and the economic impacts of Covid-19 are already pushing millions of Malians over the edge.”

Franck Vannetelle, the IRC’s country director in Mali, echoed Vicario, saying: “Despite more than a third of the country’s population being dependent on humanitarian aid, organisations working in Mali already face severe access constraints. It’s imperative that the international community keeps responding to people’s urgent needs, and that any new sanctions have concrete humanitarian exemptions. These must be monitored and implemented, or the most vulnerable people in Mali will pay the price.”

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