POND ISLAND--Protecting and preserving one’s cultural heritage is an essential part of protecting one’s identity as individuals, countries and as a Caribbean people, Prime Minister Leona Romeo-Marlin said during the opening ceremony of the working conference on Regional Approaches to Disaster Recovery and Heritage Preservation, at the Government Administration Building on Monday.

The conference, which runs from July 30 to August 3, is Caribbean Archive Association’s first meeting with international and regional policy makers, emergency responders and cultural heritage stewards since the 2017 hurricane season. The working conference focuses on the approaches to disaster response and recovery.

“Without a doubt it is necessary to bring about awareness on the preservation of our cultural heritage before and after a catastrophic disaster. It is important that we work together to establish best practices that can be applied throughout the region, as this is beneficial for us all,” said Romeo-Marlin, who had been part of the Monument Council in St. Maarten.

“This effort underlines that the present is a link from a well-defined past filled with rich culture to a future woven by our actions, guided by our aspirations and our instinctive abilities, individually and collectively. As a people, it is our collective responsibility to the next generation to preserve, protect and provide a strong cultural inheritance on which they can stand.

“The message then and now continues to be that the promotion of our cultural heritage is as valuable as the sea, sand and sun that we offer. It is our cultural heritage that defines and differentiates our individual islands and makes us attractive as the destination to visit.”

Romeo-Marlin told participants also that their presence in St. Maarten for the conference facilitates St. Maarten’s recovery efforts and ultimately helps the country to build back more sustainably.

“I have read that during the conference you will be launching the Caribbean Heritage Protection network. The success of such an important network of professionals will have a lasting positive impact on the future and lead to a society that we can be proud of,” she noted.

A representative of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Cluster Office for the Caribbean, who spoke on behalf of its Director Katherine Grigsby who could not attend the meeting, said the loss of culture, equally results in loss of identity and this affects the way in which people relate to the world.

“The significance of culture in the lives of communities and individuals as an anchor for identity and belonging makes its continuity a powerful tool for building resilience, serving as a basis for sustainable recovery,” the representative said.

Caribbean Branch of the International Council on Archives CARBICA President Rita Tjien Fooh from Suriname said much international attention has been paid to supporting improved risk assessment and disaster management within the region, following the catastrophic hurricanes of 2017. In light of the recognition of global warming as the new normal, international attention has also turned to promoting climate resilience plans.

“We were very interested in this new concept, as climate resilience planning intends to embrace a whole-of-society approach to risk assessment and disaster planning. By involving grass-roots communities within the region, countries are meant to develop more sustainable programmes for mitigating the effects of global warming,” Fooh said.

“There are regional initiatives supported by international agencies to combat the effects of natural disasters. Our own response as a professional association has focused, in a small way, on assisting our members with grants for emergency supplies and by dispatching conservation staff to provide on-the-ground assistance with recovery.”

She said that given the destructive scale of the events of 2017, a small specialised association such as CARBICA, focused on professional development and preservation of cultural properties, might seem beside the point. “But with the prospect of climate resilience planning involving more rather than less segments of society, we optimistically saw an opportunity to make our voices heard.”

In many islands, Fooh noted, heritage institutions share limited resources. “We realised our activities could have the best outcomes through collaboration with other heritage institutions/professionals and emergency disaster agencies in the region rather than through isolated activities.

“It is therefore the goal of this working conference to strengthen the ties between civil authorities responsible for response and recovery and cultural institutions responsible for the preservation of both tangible and intangible heritage.”

She said the setting up of the Caribbean Heritage Protection network is one of the main objectives of the conference, as well as the drafting and signing of a Memorandum of Agreement. “As CARBICA President I emphasise the importance and need of this network for our region.”

She said proposals will be presented during the forum to establish a Caribbean Heritage Protection network and she expects that at the end of the conference a Memorandum of Agreement will be signed ensuring that the agreed-on protocols will provide for sustainability and commitment going into the future.

Also present at the conference opening were representatives of the International Council on Archives, CARBICA Executive Committee, Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), heritage institutions in the Caribbean, and training presenters and volunteers.

Representatives of islands affected by the 2017 hurricanes were also in attendance, including representatives from Puerto Rico, French St. Martin, Dominica, British Virgin Islands (BVI) and host country Dutch St. Maarten. There were also representatives of St. Kitts and Nevis, Jamaica, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Curaçao, St. Eustatius, Bonaire and Aruba in attendance.

The conference continues today at the Government Administration Building on Pond Island.