H@R! : Heritage at Risk


Texto en español

The legal instrument which at this moment regulates all activity for the management of heritage in our country has many gaps and failings despite being a substitution for the Protection and Conservation of Antiquities and Artistic Works of the Nation Act (1945) with an interest in improving it. We are talking about the Protection and Defence of Cultural Heritage Act endorsed in 1993, for which this project of reform is still waiting on the analysis and approval of the Legislative Power. The National Committee of ICOMOS actively participated in the formulation of this project, in order to introduce the appropriate terminology from the field of conservation / restoration and in doing so, assist the scientific character of the cultural heritage operations.

With the 1993 Act, heritage protection has presented a regression by eliminating the body of the Local Government Council of Protection, which although an irregular action has borne good fruit throughout the monitoring undertaken directly by the communities in different districts. Currently, it is about correcting this by means of creating the Regional Councils of Culture and Heritage, incorporating members of the state and local government bodies, as well as the universities and with the participation of the civil society. The success of this body in the area of conservation will depend on the reform of the Cultural Act, the reform of the Heritage Act, and the relationship between the Institute for Cultural Heritage and the communities, and political and religious sectors.

Within this process of changes, that the Government system has been experimenting with over the past year, it is necessary to reinforce the heritage sector as this highest authority, the Institute of Cultural Heritage, is dependent on the Deputy Minister, assigned to the new Minister of Education, Culture and Sport. Moreover, the Catholic Church is getting organised for the protection of religious property which is a high percentage of our movable and immovable heritage, in accord with the directives from the Vatican and the Episcopal Council of Venezuela, and being more and more involved in the tasks previously administered by the Government, entering on occasion into conflict with this latter.

Over the past ten years, with the process of decentralisation, some advances have been produced and also some risk situations because in general the authorities do not know the values held by that heritage, and because as well, there are professionals, specialists or not, who act at the margins of heritage ethics, to which we add the total failure to regard such issues by the companies that are contracted to undertake these heritage works. By contrast, in recent years there have been some efforts by the civil society and mixed and private companies to return to the cultural roots and the search of our national identity. On the other hand, the media have collaborated in presenting many articles and some cases, denunciating and following the interventions on our heritage, but all of this has not had any significant effect on the conservation of our cultural heritage.

It must be stressed that Venezuela has inscribed a site in the World Heritage List, being for the city of Coro and its port, La Vela (Coro and its Port), but we note that the Government has at none of its levels, a clear understanding of the significance and the responsibility that is implied by this international testimony. This also happens at other levels with our historic centres, villages and urban sites, which have been threatened over the years because of the lack of a coherent policy. Until now, there has been no administrative structure at the national level which provides the general direction for activity for such heritage. The National Council for Protection and Conservation, in place in 1993, has issued decrees of protection and the Ministry of Urban Planning is partly involved in their planning. This was substituted quickly by the Ministry of Infrastructure with some changes to its functions. Locally, positions have been created to take charge with the control and development of those places, but they almost always suffer from the absence of an interdisciplinary team sufficiently trained and aware of its role. Historic cities that had an important role in the Conquista, and Colonial and Republican periods, like Cumana, El Tocuyo, Baruqismeto, La Asuncion, Maracaibo, Bolivar City, Carora, Merida, Barcelona, among others, that are to be found across the country, have not been catered to as they might have been, despite being protected by decrees that declare them Historic Centres, but which does not necessarily lead to the establishment of clear rules for conservation action for them. Ordinances, when they exist, have been developed by personnel who are not specialised, in the majority of cases, and have only a partial view of our urban problems and heritage protection.

A notorious case of heritage currently at risk, is that of the districts affected by the tragic floods in the north of our country, in the state of Vargas, especially the Historic Centre of La Guaira and the traditional zone of Macuto, partly destroyed and with buildings that run the risk of disappearing. Another situation which has attracted attention, especially in Caracas, is the demolition of important buildings of the Modernism period, such as the case of the destruction of examples of Urbanism. The need for "progress" and the adaptation of new uses and infrastructure have imposed a profit-driven logic in denying the value of buildings which have an important place in the history of the city.

Recently, a controversy has flared up over underwater heritage, as the remains of numerous ships which are to be found on our continental shelf have been explored and exploited by private individuals for their profit, with the agreement of the Controller General of the Republic. Of the finds obtained, 60% goes to the exploration business and 40% to the Government of Venezuela. The Institute of Cultural Heritage will shortly start an inventory of these sites in order to try and regulate their study and exploitation.

Another danger for cultural heritage is to be found in the "free zones" established in the country because with large influxes for the development of tourism, industry and commerce, the characteristics and the values belonging to the sites are spoilt. A patent example is the Island of Margarita, which has undergone this process since 1969 with many losses to heritage building and traditional ways of life. Also of concern is the future of interesting haciendas and other heritage of great interest which have been in a state of abandonment in the Peninsula of Paraguana, which must be protected in some future time by the promulgation of the Free Zone of 1998. A contrasting case, is the city of Merida where recently a Free Zone was declared in the interest of Environment, Science and Technology, with conditions which permit its exploitation, but rationally and with every type of legal recourse.

Other examples, no less relevant to our heritage are to be found in a situation of risk; amongst them could be enumerated:

  • indigenous cultures with all that represents their intangible heritage
  • the fortification system situated at the Costa Lake and on the Orinoco River
  • houses abandoned to their fate
  • houses on stilts in the west of the country at risk of disappearing because of hygiene issues
  • industrial heritage distributed across the country where there are coffee, cocoa, sugar cane and precious timber plantations
  • the first city on the island Nueva Cadiz de Cubagua, founded for the harvesting of cultured pearls
  • cemeteries, amongst which is to be found the Jewish Cemetery of Coro, the oldest of its kind in Latin America
  • oil fields, urban enclaves for the communities that worked in the exploration concessions for multi-national companies, who with the changes in the conditions of production, had altered their architecture and planning in a negative way

All of these are without adequate promotion and attention - and the worst of it is that with the limited protection that mostly merely stayed on the paper it was written on (laws, regulations, decrees) having no concrete results in practice - and the benefits that might be represented for our identity and for the sustainable development of our society.


Case Study 1 - The World Heritage City of Coro and its Port of La Vela

The various threats that threaten this site converge to form a very complex situation. It has been noted elsewhere that there is no single administrative agency with a clear understanding of the importance of its management. Furthermore, the local governmental institutions do not perceive the problem of heritage conservation as an integral part of the sustainable development of the city. The consequence of this has been the implementation of partial programs outside of any coherent planning, and the exclusion of many participants that should form part of a solution that is comprehensive, scientifically programmed, sustainable and with continuity.

Due to marked social differences, certain sectors of the community do not recognise the heritage as their own, and are not inclined to conserve it. The same is true of residents who are foreign immigrants, who are involved in retail, and alter highly significant buildings to pursue their own aims. In addition, the emigration of the more affluent population to other areas where they perceive a better future fosters the abandonment and slow destruction of the most significant residential properties, and also with the greatest potential to revitalise the historic district.

The risk from natural causes that threaten the earthen architecture stem from humidity and are aggravated by the absence of an effective urban storm drainage system. Such conditions favour termite infestation and the movement of expansive sub-soil clays, which in turn advance the conditions of deterioration. The Inclusion of the Church of San Francisco in the World Monuments Watch "100 Most Endangered Sites" lists of both 1998-1999 and 2000-2001 are evidence of the gravity of the situation. The Archdiocese of Coro, which partially finances the restoration project of the church building, does not have sufficient resources to carry out all the work.


Case Study 2 - The City of La Guaira and the Fortification System of el Avila

The consequences of the landslides of December 1999 in the historic centre of the city of La Guaira (included in Venezuela’s tentative list for the World Heritage Convention) are but part of a problem of much greater magnitude that has affected all social and economic groups in the region, and whose solution will require mid- and long-term strategies. The partial destruction of the city’s fabric added complication to a pre-existing situation of poverty and social conflict. The lack of employment opportunities already had been reflected in losses and alterations in historic buildings and in the difficulty to conserve and revitalise the city and the quality of life of its inhabitants.

Both the mass media and the local communities have pressured the national government and the regional and local agencies, who in turn have drawn up macro-projects and specific plans. The recently established State of Vargas Development Corporation is due to begin to undertake concrete and concerted actions shortly. Nevertheless, it is clear that this will be a slow and complex task. The greatest threats today are that time and the natural processes will accelerate deterioration, causing irreversible loss in many instances that can now be rescued. Also, it is feared that the locals will respond to meet their imminent vital needs by reconstructing and remodelling historic buildings without any guidance, something that will cause more damages than benefits.

In this respect, ICOMOS Venezuela has been actively involved by establishing links among the many stakeholders, and with international organisations capable of providing assistance, including the Inter American Development Bank, which sent a technical mission to evaluate the potential for granting credits to repair disaster damages to the cultural heritage.

ICOMOS Venezuela

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