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Paramaribo’s cultural heritage brings financial worries, not unity

22 June 2011

The inclusion of Parimaribo’s inner city on the UNESCO world heritage list has not contributed to unifying the ethnic communities. The claim by the UN organization that the architectural colonial heritage in the Surinamese capital is of ‘outstanding universal value’ is unfounded as several communities do not feel at all involved with the old colonial constructions. In the meantime, the government is allowing many of the buildings to become run down. This has been revealed by research conducted by social geographer Eugenio van Maanen for which he will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 30 June.

The centre of Paramaribo has numerous historical buildings, designed following Dutch, English and French architectonic traditions. Social geographer Eugenio van Maanen investigated the extent to which this architectural cultural heritage unites the various ethnic communities in Paramaribo. This was partly inspired by the fact that UNESCO has included the inner city on its world heritage list. The research has revealed that this ‘recognition’ has brought major problems with it for the Surinamese government and has not brought the various ethnic communities closer together.

What the government wants

Van Maanen analysed the cultural policy of the Suriname government for his research, interviewed experts and charted the attitudes of the various ethnic communities with regard to the architectural heritage. The cultural policy appears to be trying to go in two different directions. On the one hand it is trying to preserve cultural diversity – among other things by giving grants to exhibitions and cultural meetings organized by the various ethnic groups. On the other hand, the government seems to be trying to create a ‘Surinamese identity’. The decision to nominate the inner city of Paramaribo for the UNESCO world heritage list fits in with this latter policy intention.

What the population thinks

The various communities – Van Maanen differentiates Creoles, Maroons, Hindustanis, Javanese and a mixed group – each have their own attitude towards the architectural colonial heritage, as revealed by a questionnaire sent to fifteen hundred inhabitants of Paramaribo. Creoles and Maroons are relatively speaking the most involved with the buildings. Van Maanen suggests that this is because these groups are descended from the slaves who actually built them. The Hindustanis and the Javanese have virtually no link with the architectural colonial heritage. What is worth noting is that not a single one of the 244 buildings listed as monuments is originally Hindustani or Javanese.

Heritage is always controversial

The researcher has fundamental objections to UNESCO’s claim that heritage has universal value. Van Maanen: ‘Heritage is always controversial, all over the world. Whoever’s in power decides what is going to be heritage. In Suriname, where no single community is dominant in numbers, this is perhaps even more true than elsewhere. Neither the population nor the policymakers are really involved in the issue of what is actually Surinamese heritage. This is why attempts towards ‘nation building’, like the UNESCO nomination, have virtually no chance of succeeding.’

Financial worries

In the meantime, the UNESCO recognition has only resulted in problems. The Surinamese government is now obliged to restore and maintain the numerous wooden buildings, which decay rapidly in the tropical climate, and it simply doesn’t have the financial means. In fact, the historical buildings owned by the government are usually in a much worse state than those in private hands. Van Maanen: ‘The government has no money and often appears to have no interest in maintaining the buildings.’ If people want the colonial heritage to be preserved – and that’s the core of the issue – then the buildings must be given economic and social functions, according to Van Maanen.

Curriculum Vitae

Eugenio van Maanen (Zeist, 1963) studied Social Geography in Utrecht. He conducted his research at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences of the University of Groningen. His supervisors were Prof. G.J. Ashworth and Dr P.D. Groote. The research was partially financed by NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences, where Van Maanen has been a lecturer since 2001. His thesis is entitled ‘Colonial heritage and ethnic pluralism: its socio-psychological meaning in a multiethnic community.’

Note for the press

Contact: Eugenio van Maanen

Last modified:13 March 2020 01.53 a.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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