Culture and heritage as significant contributors for sustainability in Mauritius
Celebrated for its many intrinsic values, culture permeates various spheres of our social fabric. Through the multiplicity of uses and meanings, culture contributes to the creation of identities, enhances collective memories, and empowers people and States. As a powerful agent for development, culture, through Heritage and Arts plays a significant role in the world for social, economic, and sustainable development.
As an independent country with a colonial background, Mauritius has a rich historical legacy.
With a population made up mainly of descendants of slaves and indentured labourers from India, Mozambique, Madagascar and China, the island has inherited a mosaic of cultures from peoples of various ethnic origins. Today, the multicultural attributes of Mauritius are its main strength, and the tourism and trade sectors are creatively using the cultural facets of the island towards an economic end. Gradually, state parties are recognising the potential of the cultural economy where culture through heritage and arts helps to achieve economic expansion in a sustainable manner.
The concept of sustainable development is based on the fact that we live in a world where resources are finite, and if we continue development at an unbridled pace, we might exhaust the earth’s resources irreversibly. Development is indeed important for the economic well-being of a country; however, we should be mindful of the harmful consequences of constantly cutting down trees and polluting the air. During the Rio Summit in 1992, the United Nations encouraged states to adopt a sustainable approach to economic development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, as excellently captured by the Brundtland Commission. The philosophy of sustainable development is gaining increasing recognition in government policy compared to heritage despite the latter’s great potential in contributing to wider sustainable development goals. Often referred to as ‘the poor child’ of the Mauritian government, culture has always had to fight its way to be recognised as a contributor of economic, social and environmental benefits.
Heritage does help in sustainable consumption and production. Mauritius has quite an interesting architectural heritage from colonial times. Various iconic stone buildings dating back from both French and English periods magnificently occupy our townscapes. The Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, commonly known as English Heritage, argues that re-using historic buildings is a important way of reducing energy use and the amount of construction waste generated.
Further, the adaptive re-use of historic monuments as public buildings is cost-effective, contributes to their preservation and helps in rejuvenating a city’s visual culture and in maintaining its Historic Landscape Characterisation. If some of them are now important landmarks of the capital and cities, others of less glorious fate are left to perish and slowly die in the Memory of Man. The bustling and very lively city of Port Louis is a repository of many unoccupied old historic buildings, amongst which the Granary, which could potentially be refurbished to create a National Art Gallery where Mauritian artists can create and showcase their work.
The tourism industry plays a crucial role in somehow sustaining culture and heritage in Mauritius, mainly due to its capacity in capturing the economic characteristics of the heritage features. Hoteliers and promoters have been rather far sighted in realizing that elements of heritage and of the past add value to products and places. Through creative and cultural tourism, elements of both our tangible and intangible heritage are being used to please a more and more culture savvy tourism market on the lookout for authenticity.
The vibrancy of sega shows and the warmth of traditional Mauritian cuisine are seductively infused in tourism packages and cultural products. The conversion of bourgeois colonial houses into hotels and visitor attractions, and the creation of a small private museum within the cluster of restaurants are becoming a trend in the hospitality and tourism field. Thanks largely to the income-generating capacity of tourism, the preservation of historic vestiges and the safeguarding of cultural practices are achievable.
Heritage, Arts and Culture confer a people-centric approach and dimension to development. Conscious of its pulling powers, the manufacturing and trade industry is creatively using the powerful assets and values of our social capital to appeal to the market. The Made in Moris committee, a group comprising private manufacturing companies, has been actively broadcasting media campaigns featuring local artists and oral tradition cultural features such as the ‘sirandanes’ to better promote locally made products. The partnership between the trade industry and culture is a worthy example of how sustainable development can be achieved.
Keeping sight of the past is important for people for different personal reasons: the protection of cultural heritage provides a sense of belonging, and defines identities at national and local levels. Further, heritage provides depth and character to our working and living environment. We attribute value to the legacy of our past, our archaeology and buildings, because they reveal who we are and they are the principal evidence and record of our history. The contribution that cultural resources can make to drive sustainable development processes as a whole is not to be overlooked.
In an inclusive and holistic manner, the Creative Economy Report 2013 focuses on how cultural expression encompassing artistic practice “energizes and empowers individuals and groups, particularly among the marginalized and downtrodden”. It takes into consideration tangible and intangible cultural heritage which, apart from its income generating capacity, “provides people with the cultural memories, knowledge and skills vital for the forging of sustainable relationships with natural resources and ecosystems”. Urban planning and architecture being a crucial quality component of our built heritage “enables and nurtures individual and group well-being, as well as their capacity to create and innovate”.
Development is essential for the economic and social well-being of a country. If sectors like education, housing and health have always been given topmost priority by the Mauritian government, gradually other meaningful and people-centered areas like culture, heritage and arts are gaining their place on state agendas. Heritage is an enabler for national development where economic expansion together with social sustainability thrives. But above all, as is beautifully captured by Tessa Jowell, former UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in her advocacy for the funding of arts and culture by the government, Culture and Heritage is valued because:
“Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies – Give us bread but give us roses.”
— Hema Sreemantoo, MA Heritage Management
* Published in print edition on 29 May 2015