AXEL PLATHE is the head of office and UNESCO Representative to Nepal. UNESCO has been supporting Nepal for a long period of time in various sectors. Plathe took his time out to speak to NEW SPOTLIGHT on several aspects of his work. Excerpts:
UNESCO has been supporting Nepal in various sectors for many years, what is the present state of UNESCO’s support to Nepal?
Yes, indeed, UNESCO’s relations with Nepal date back to 1953, when Nepal joined UNESCO. Our Office here in Kathmandu was established in 1998. For many years, UNESCO has supported Nepal to attain the goal of quality Education for All, mobilize scientific knowledge and science policy for sustainable development, preserve Nepal’s rich cultural heritage, promote cultural diversity and dialogue among its culturally diverse communities, and empower people through the free flow of ideas and access to information and knowledge.
I believe that over the years, UNESCO has become a reliable partner for both the government and a great number of civil society organizations. We assist in strategy and policy development in education, natural sciences, culture, and communication and information. We are working mostly at the upstream level and focus on selected target areas and population groups.
What is the role of UNESCO in Nepal’s transition?
In Nepal’s transition to peace and democracy, all areas of expertise of UNESCO - education, culture, the sciences and communication and information – are highly relevant. We are presently focusing on education, culture and media development, as we believe that they are essential to accelerate the country’s peace and development process.
Nepal has been talking much on the agenda of physical sides of mountain countries, how do you see the importance of mountain cultures?
The mountain cultures are part and parcel of the very rich cultural landscape of Nepal. And we are seeing with concern the many threats to these cultures, such as migration and climate change that have taken place so powerfully and rapidly in the mountain districts. They are not only a great danger to the livelihood of the people, but, almost more importantly, to their cultural identities. We need innovative and adopt sustainable adaptation strategies and methods to ensure that both the tangible and intangible heritages and living cultures of the mountain people are preserved.
Has UNESCO been supporting the preservation of mountain cultures in Nepal?
In FYI - In 2002-2007, on behalf of UNESCO, Nepal Trust had implemented a Humla (far-western region bordering Tibet) eco-tourism and trekking promotion project within the framework of “Development of Cultural and Ecotourism in the Mountainous Regions of Central and South Asia”. The overall objective of the project was to promote community-based cultural and eco-tourism aspects in selected mountain areas of South and Central Asia, with a specific focus on poverty eradication, reduction of rural-urban migration and the preservation of cultural and natural heritage. Nepal project was basically for capacity building of locals as guides, porters, home stays opportunities, cultural trails and production of promotional materials, promotion of quality craft as well as local culture-festivals and events.
What is the focus of UNESCO?
I believe that it is important to get the enabling frameworks right. This is why we are presently focusing on the upstream level to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage of all communities in Nepal.
We are very happy that the Government of Nepal took in 2010 the very important step in its efforts to safeguard the intangible heritage of its people by ratifying the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Now, we have embarked on an ambitious project to build the capacities of the communities, including mountain communities, and the national authorities to protect the intangible heritage. We are focusing basically on three areas. First, building capacities to implement the Convention at the national level. Second, helping to start community-based inventorying of intangible cultural heritage; and third, building skills to elaborate nominations to the Intangible Heritage Lists. But we are also implementing concrete activities. Let me just give one example. Recently, we have helped establish a women community radio station in Jumla, that broadcasts in Jumli and contributes to maintain the Jumli language. And Jumli, as the many other languages spoken in the hill and mountain districts, is certainly one of the most important part of the culture of the people living there.
What is the state of Nepal’s world heritage sites? How has UNESCO been supporting to preserve them?
As you know, Nepal has four World Heritage Sites: two cultural, the Kathmandu Valley and Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha; and two natural sites, Sagarmatha National Park and Chitwan National Park.
The challenges for their preservation are great. Let me just mention a few. In Chitwan, one of the key and continuous challenges has been to maintain the balanced relationship between the park and the people. The Madi community living behind the park at the national boundary are deprived from basic services such as road connectivity and electricity. Most often a search for sustainable solution to reconcile community development needs has remained to be a very slow process in Nepal that sometimes may create negative impression on the people living in and surrounding the world heritage sites. In Kathmandu, unplanned and intense urban growth and lack of proper mechanism to deal with the situation has often left the heritage sites to most often being encroached upon, such as the road built through the Sleshmantak Ban of Pashupati, which is one of the seven monuments of Kathmandu Valley world heritage sites. Other challenges created from the lack of sufficient capacity to manage, both human and financial aspects, that has made it little possible the regular maintenance and monitoring, which are important aspects for preserving these sites.
How are you supporting the government?
We are working very closely with the Government to provide technical assistance for monitoring the works that they do no harm to the heritage sites. This of course includes capacity building in the mandatory reporting on the state of conservation of inscribed properties and encourage international cooperation in their conservation. In addition, we assist in the management of properties and cooperate with the site managers and the Department of Archaeology to find sustainable solutions to the protection of the sites.
But we are not only with the authorities. For us, it is important to also involve local communities in protecting, safeguarding and managing World Heritage properties. This includes programmes to improve living conditions of local communities and to enhance economic development opportunities linked to heritage tourism and craft industries. And on the operational level, we are implementing concrete conservation projects as the three year project for the “Strengthening Conservation and Management of Lumbini, the Birthplace of Lord Buddha”.
UNESCO remains a pioneer in supporting Nepal to achieve hundred percent literacy rate. What is the state of affairs now?
According to the EFA National Plan of Action, by 2015, the government strives to achieve a literacy rate of 90% for 6+, 75% for 15+, and 95% for youth (age 15-24). In addition, the goal for literacy gender parity index (GPI) for 15+ is 1.0 by 2015. The specific target groups include disadvantaged communities with low literacy rates such as Dalits, ethnic groups, women, very poor people, the landless, and people living in remote areas. We as many of the development partners here in Nepal see with great concern that Illiteracy remains one of the great development challenges. Despite progress, literacy rates are low. The Nepal Living Standard Survey 2011 reflects a literacy rate of only 56.5 among people who are older than 15 years. And there are huge variations in literacy rates between urban and rural areas, geographical zones, between rich and poor groups, and between different castes and ethnic groups.
There have been several attempts to increase literacy in Nepal. For example, the Ministry of Education undertook a national literacy campaign in 2008-2010 with the aim to eradicate illiteracy in two years. However, this and other initiatives did not yield the expected results, mainly because of lack of proper institutional and organizational capacities.
This is why we focus on literacy as we would like to assist Nepal to achieve Education for All by 2015,We put special emphasis on women and disadvantaged groups and on developing the capacities of CLCs. There are very promising new approaches to make people literate that we have piloted. For example linking mother tongue based literacy with life-skill training programmes. We believe that there have been great potentials to be mainstreamed, but we must also look at strengthening the capacity of education officials and non-state providers to plan and implement effective literacy programmes. We will shortly start a new project in this regard.
UNESCO supported Nepal in the past to celebrate the World Water Day. How do you see the state of access of drinking water in Nepal?
Yes, we have with great pleasure supported the events organized around World Water Day in the past years. They provide excellent occasions to create awareness and provide information. This is particularly important as access to safe water is still a great challenge for many people in Nepal. This of course is very much linked to the extreme topography of Nepal. In the mountain areas, the distances to water sources are sometimes very great. But not only access is an issue. We also have to look at the quality of water which is affected by the presence of arsenic in many areas.
In Nepal, as in other parts of the world the dramatic growth in demands for water are threatening all MDGs and the rising food demand, rapid urbanization and climate change are increasing pressure on global water supplies almost daily .
How does UNESCO support Nepal?
UNESCO is working to enhance national capacities to use and manage water sustainably. This includes strengthening capacities to increase water productivity and waste-water reuse in agriculture to produce more food per drop. We also need more efficient irrigation and rainwater harvesting systems. And the management of water and land must be better integrated.
Let me give two examples of our work: UNESCO has initiated research work on human-induced land-use changes and groundwater depletion and their linkages to hydrological and climate systems at a regional scale, which includes Nepal. Similarly, we have initiated a study on “Assessing impacts of climate change and adaptation in sediment transport and hydrological regime on a high altitude catchment of Nepal”. This study collected relevant information, maps, identified hot spots, and data monitoring locations.