Safeguarding Mali’s Heritage: Bex Dunn

The recent spate of attacks by Islamic extremists against Mali’s cultural heritage is deeply concerning. Although it would be easy to say that it is not that important as it is not targeted at civilians, it is still a gross act. On the 18th February International experts and decision makers at a United Nations forum in Paris formulated and adopted an action plan that is designed to protect and preserve Mali’s cultural heritage from further attacks and destruction. The action plan was formulated with UNESCO and the French government and seeks the participation of local communities to locate and digitise historical manuscripts.

When we think of conflict breaking out we are concerned with protecting the people and the effect it will have on communities but often it is easy to neglect other things that are still important and still need protecting. If the extremists continue to target cultural sites then much of Mali’s historical records and artefacts could be permanently destroyed. It is, arguably, our duty to protect these objects and sites so that we can maintain the record of dialogue between cultures and to ensure we can still enjoy learning about past communities.

There is already significant status attributed to cultural sites across the world and we would balk at the notion of these sites being destroyed or threatened so why should it be any different when it is occurring in Mali. Once these things are destroyed then they will be permanently gone and we will have no way to replace them, they are part of our shared human history and thus it is vital that they be protected. With the established practice of loaning out artefacts to museums or libraries in other countries it is implying that we have a desire to see them so I don’t see how we could neglect to assist in protecting them in their country of origin if their existence is threatened.

The action plan that was formulated is estimated to cost around $11 million. Although this is a vast figure it will go towards providing training for local peoples on how to properly re-establish the conditions for the conservation of Mali’s manuscripts and other artefacts. The action plan will cover World Heritage sites and cultural heritage properties such as Timbuktu, the Tomb of Askia in Gao, the Old Town of Djenne and the Cliff of Bandiagara (land of Dogon) as well as various museums. A team comprising of personnel from UNESCO will travel to Mali to assess the damage and the action required to rectify the situation as soon as conditions in Mali allow it, and then will begin the process of conserving and protecting Mali’s cultural heritage.

Bex Dunn