New National Trust board tasked with getting Georgetown on World Heritage Site list

The new Board of Directors of the National Trust of Guyana has been mandated to find out why ten years after it was proposed, Georgetown is not yet inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

The city, with its plantation-style layout and wooden architecture is reputed to be of cultural and historical significance. In a telephone interview with Stabroek News, Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport Dr Frank Anthony said that based on reports it would appear that all the documentation had not been submitted to the relevant authorities. He has therefore tasked the board with completing the necessary procedures to ensure that the conditions are met so that historical Georgetown could be inscribed as a World Heritage Site.

If the conditions include enacting legislation, he said, the board would be expected to make the necessary recommendations. The new board, which was recently installed and is once again headed by Dr James Rose, includes representatives of the Mayor and City Council, Georgetown Heritage Society, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Tourism, Industry and Commerce, Central Housing and Planning Authority,  a building engineer, an architectural historian and a representative of the UNESCO National Commission among others.

In an interview in October 2005, then minister of education Dr Henry Jeffrey had said that US$20 million would be needed to develop Guyana’s wooden architectural heritage for nomination. He had said that a management plan for historical Georgetown was being developed. Nothing more was heard of the management plan.

The study for the development and preservation of Georgetown as a World Heritage Site, as done by two Dutch consultants, recommended that the city’s historical revitalisation could be spread over a ten-year period, with US$2 million invested annually.

When asked about national budgetary funding, Jeffrey had pointed to the complexities with regard to some of the national monuments and clusters, as some identified were privately owned. Since then, there has been no budgetary allocation for the restoration of the main buildings and monuments identified or clusters of historical buildings and their environments.

Some 85 monuments/buildings countrywide, selected for gazetting since 2001, are reportedly still being examined. In the course of the legal process towards listing a national monument, a clause which states that once gazetted a national monument becomes the property of the National Trust was opposed by some.
An original list of 13 buildings/monuments in Georgetown was identified for preservation including the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church which was gutted by fire in December, 2004. The others are the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre also known as the Red House; Austin House, the official residence of Bishop of the Anglican Church; the Prime Minister’s Residence; State House, the official residence of the President; Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology; the Promenade Gardens; St George’s Cathedral; City Hall; St Andrew’s Kirk; Stabroek Market; Dargan House, the office of the National Commission for UNESCO; and Parliament Buildings.

In the June 26, 2008 instalment of ‘History this week’ headlined, ‘Towards UNESCO World Heritage Listing: Mission Impossible?’ the writer Lloyd Kandasammy recalled the bid to have Guyana inscribed on the prestigious World Heritage List undertaken in 1998 with tremendous enthusiasm by then secretary general of the Guyana National Commission of UNESCO, Carmen Jarvis through a sub committee. He said that since she retired in December 2004, the project received minimal attention. He envisaged that new Secretary General, Inge Nathoo, will complete the task Jarvis started with similar or greater vigour.

The sub-committee on legislation and preservation established under Jarvis had collected data pertinent to the information required for the compilation of the dossier to be presented with Guyana’s recommendation.
According to Kandasammy, the dossier could be quickly put together but the absence of effective legislation was the largest single obstacle for the dossier to be accepted as effective legislation would entail continuous management of the area and hence its survival for the benefit of the current and future generations.

In the circumstance, he said, an immediate task must be the implementation of effective legislation as UNESCO had affirmed a position that it would not consider any proposal from Guyana unless proper legislation existed to afford the maintenance and the survival of the site once it had been inscribed.

He noted that the historic preservation fell squarely within the mandate of the National Trust of Guyana, which was established by an act of parliament in 1972. The National Trust Act, he said, stipulated the need for the preservation of buildings of national or architectural and historic or artistic interest along with the amenities of those buildings and places and their surroundings, the preservation of the furniture, pictures and chattels of any description having national or historic or artistic value.

The National Trust also has responsibility for the access to and enjoyment by the public of such buildings, places and chattels and the promotion of the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation, of property, of beauty or of historic interest.

According to Anthony, he expects the newly constituted board of the National Trust to be proactive.
Dr Ron van Oers was one of the Dutch consultants, who assisted the local UNESCO office to select heritage sites in Georgetown, for submission to the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), with a view to having the city inscribed. He  had told Stabroek News in 2000 that Georgetown’s unique urban plan with its civil engineering structure that went back to the 18th century when the Dutch laid out the plantations on the banks of the Demerara River and which was eventually converted into urban landscapes with residential neighbourhoods below the level of the sea, was one of its key features.

In addition to the cultural and historical significance, he noted the uniqueness of the Guyanese architecture – a blend of British colonial architecture, West Indian influences and Creole craftsmanship – features not found anywhere else in the region. The portions of Georgetown to be included in the site description were not just of cultural significance to Guyanese, but on account of their uniqueness, to the world.

Inscription on the World Heritage List would open up possibilities for preservation funding, but van Oers had warned, “it usually only comes around when there is a true commitment to preserve things… As long as legislation is non-existent or very poorly implemented, meaning that people are still allowed to tear down old buildings, not one single organisation or bilateral programme will fund the preservation of buildings.”
He had said that during the time he spent here, he had hoped to achieve consensus among stakeholders, such as the Georgetown municipality, the Ministry of Housing, the National Trust, UNESCO Commission and the Ministry of Culture but while they were supportive, “total commitment” was lacking. “The people and the decision-makers in this process had to commit themselves to preserving the ancient part of Georgetown,” he had said.

While some laws for the management of historical sites were in place he noted the need for amendments to the National Trust Act to deal with trivial fines (US$5) for damage to and tearing down of historical buildings.

“More important than the fines,” he went on, “is the awareness of the people and the businessmen. At least in some areas of the town they should try to preserve and invest in those [older] buildings, instead of tearing them down and erecting new buildings. If you are going to erect new buildings, place the width according to certain standards, maintain the same height, use the same colour schemes; if it is possible use the same materials and also the same rhythm to maintain the image of the city. Going up five storeys high is like disrupting the image.”

According to Kandasammy, attempts to have the National Trust Act enhanced to gazette national monuments as property of the National Trust were refused; and clauses to guide the listing process, through classification and grading of buildings based on architectural, historic merits among other features were tabled since 2002 but six years later these documents have not yet been addressed.

Kandasammy noted, too, that a draft of ‘Building Guidelines in Historic Districts’ to safeguard the historic ambience of monuments or buildings that are not found in historical cluster sites was prepared through the National Trust in 2003 but five years later it was still being examined.

Speaking about constraints, van Oers, whose visit was preceded by another Dutch consultant in 1998 to have Georgetown inscribed as a cultural heritage site, noted that conserving wooden structures in the tropics was difficult. Termites, the sun and humidity had left several beautiful monumental buildings in Georgetown dilapidated and on the verge of collapse. He had noted that Georgetown was a living city and UNESCO recognised the difficulties that related to the management and conservation of a living city, since people had social and economic needs, as well as the need for cultural continuity and development. “It is usually much harder to conserve living cities and historic inner cities, than an ancient fortress or an ancient cathedral,” he had said.

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