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Experts pile pressure on State to protect Kenya's marine heritage

A view of Fort Jesus from Englishpoint Marina. The Discovery of three ancient Portuguese shipwrecks outside Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa and another at Ngomeni in Malindi have been identified as clear signs of the rich underwater cultural heritage that call for further mapping and protection.. [File, Standard]

Archaeology experts are pushing for the ratification of a convention meant to ensure uniform protection of underwater cultural heritage across the globe.

Museum professionals from 16 African countries meeting in Mombasa said only a handful of countries had ratified the Convention on Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.

They said the delay to ratify the key treaty could hamper plans by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to ensure a uniform approach to conserving maritime heritage.

The treaty was adopted on November 2, 2001, by the Unesco general conference to protect underwater cultural heritage such as shipwrecks, towns and harbour works that were submerged for at least a century.

The professionals argued that the sites and objects of historical and archaeological interest represent invaluable sources of information on ancient civilisations, maritime practices, human use of land and marine environment and climate change.

The experts shared information aimed at raising awareness among Unesco member-states even as most representatives indicated they were mulling establishing maritime museums to promote tourism.

National Commission for Unesco Programme officer in charge of culture Judy Ogana attributed the delay in ratifying the treaty to a lack of understanding of the importance of underwater historical objects and archaeological sites.

“Kenya is just about to ratify the convention but many of her peers are lagging due to a lack of understanding of the benefits of the underwater cultural heritage. We have gathered here as part of efforts to raise awareness. We are doing capacity building for member states,” Ms Ogana explained.

She argued that countries share water bodies and hence it was important for them to ratify the convention or they all stand to lose their cultural resources. The experts came from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Namibia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Seychelles, Comoros, Benin, the Sudan and Somalia.

Caesar Bita, the National Museum of Kenya (NMK) underwater archaeologist, said underwater historical sites and objects are part of the blue economy monuments that could be tapped to turn around the tourism sector.

“We are mapping out and building capacity on underwater cultural heritage which can be used to turn around the tourism sector. The heritage can support businesses such as museums. It can be developed to support the economy and livelihoods of the people,” he said, adding that Kenya may ratify the convention by end of the year.

NMK Coast Assistant Director  Athman Hussein said the discovery of three ancient Portuguese shipwrecks outside Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa and another at Ngomeni in Malindi were clear signs of the rich underwater cultural heritage that call for further mapping and protection.

“Kenya plans to establish a training institute for underwater cultural heritage at Mnarani in Kilifi in five years. We hope to get support from Unesco to showcase our rich archaeology,” Hussein said.