“Leverage Lumbini’s soft power” | Nepali Times

Michael Croft, UNESCO Representative to Nepal, spoke to Nepali Times on the occasion of Buddha Jayanti to discuss the development of Lumbini and other heritage sites in the country. Excerpts:

What is UNESCO’s role in Nepal?

Michael Croft: Nepal is almost a microcosm of the wider human community because it is intensely diverse. The many different languages, Indigenous groups, traditions and geography make it a complex functioning entity.

And in that mix, there are certain lessons that can be drawn on how people can get together, how people can get along, how people can live in peace. And with the diversity comes also a rich cultural and creative heritage in Nepal.

Read also: Telling the story of  Buddha’s Lumbini, Sahina Shrestha

As a result, we came up with a strategy by focusing on three main issues. We ask ourselves: What are the priorities here? What do Nepalis really care about?

We work directly with the government, private sector, civil society, and we also work with international partners and other UN agencies. In Lumbini, UNESCO can bring everybody on the table where they can put their perspectives for all to see, understand and comment on.

Our resources are limited, our time is limited, and it would be really difficult for UNESCO to move the needle without support from the stakeholders. But if we can facilitate a partnership, a common understanding, things can perhaps move in the right way.

How about UNESCO’s work in natural heritage preservation?

The brand of the world cultural heritage is so strong that it tends to overshadow everything else. But the true magic happens in the interesting space where culture meets nature. And UNESCO has a range of designations for natural sites: global geo-parks, biosphere reserves, and such.

Nepal has an outstanding natural heritage, with two designated sites: Sagarmatha and Chitwan. These sites provide an important leverage, especially since Sagarmatha is known worldwide. Showcasing these best practices makes them globally relevant and visible. This is the same for Lumbini although in a different context, and the two sites that can generate enormous soft power because they are known and valued by millions of people many of whom have never even seen them.

Given global climate change, there is a need for just as much energy and resource, if not more, to be put into promoting biodiversity. We have to protect these few remaining places so that we can learn more from them and draw lessons on how to restore the same in other parts of the world.

This also links to the role of Indigenous groups, who are 4% of the world population but control or manage 80% of the biodiversity. 

If we don’t have an ecosystem then it makes no sense to talk about cultural heritage anyway, because there is a complex codependency between the two.

What other steps can Nepal take in leveraging the soft power of Lumbini and Sagarmatha?

In Nepal, Lumbini and Sagarmatha are discussed a lot. But in the case of Lumbini, especially, the international dialogue is not yet what it could be. Because UNESCO is an inter-governmental organisation, it can play a part in providing international visibility and facilitating international interactions.

These can play a pivotal role in influencing international perceptions of Nepal. They provide a chance to exchange ideas and practices with other countries and global institutions with different experiences and expertise.

Read also: Sagarmatha’s buffer zone is vanishing, Navin Singh Khadka

The visibility attained in this way allows for the Nepali story to reach other countries and communities, and people can have an appreciation for Nepal for what it really is, not what they think it is.

The key role of UNESCO is to promote peace and sustainable development through international collaboration, education, science and culture. The ground-level work has to be accompanied by the discourse that reminds us why Lumbini is important, what it stands for. UNESCO can assist the government to build a network with international partners.

Is Lumbini being overbuilt?

I wouldn’t say that Lumbini is overbuilt. The issue is that Lumbini is an area where the greatest amount of resources have been focused on infrastructure, and to some extent some of the archaeological work, but not so much on other elements.

Perhaps the infrastructure has gone ahead of other aspects because the responsibility of expanding infrastructure falls on one key official actor, the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT). But there are many cogs and wheels moving in Lumbini and sometimes it is difficult to synchronise. 

Softer issues such as the local communities’ ability to leverage the sites for their own sustainable development, and the quality of guides to interpret the sites have not received as much attention. It is important to come up with solutions because one cannot develop any particular course in Lumbini without referring to another, or else everything falls out of sync.

Lumbini must consider developing its soft power so that people can have a much deeper experience with the site, and more visitors come. This includes a proper visitor management plan and a focus on why people come to Lumbini and how long they stay.

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