Conserving Peatland Heritages

Aug 16, 2022 | Bogs in Transition

This month’s blog post is by Kate Flood. Kate is a PhD candidate at NUI Galway. Her work explores the relationship between people and peatlands. She is involved with Girley  Bog in Co. Meath and runs the website Kate is also a member of the Community Wetlands Forum Steering Group and is the Liaison Officer for the organisation’s involvement with the EU Horizon project WaterLANDS

Conserving Peatland Heritages

“Heritage has always been with us and has always been produced by people according to their contemporary concerns and experiences” David Harvey

National Heritage Week 2022 is taking place from Saturday 13th to Sunday 21st and this year’s theme is ‘Sustainable Heritage and Biodiversity’. There are a number of events taking place on and around our bogs. You can find these events on the National Heritage Week website.

Contemporary ideas of heritage emphasise that what societies consider as heritage is shaped by changing attitudes and contexts over time. Broadly speaking, heritage is what societies choose to inherit and pass on to the next generation. This perspective underlines the choices involved in the construction of heritage which can lead to differing, even conflicting views. On the one hand, heritage can be viewed as a way for communities to care for their culture and landscape, providing a sense of identity and belonging. On the other, it can be seen as a potential source of conflict, an elitist enterprise or a commercial use of the past in the form of the heritage ‘industry’. Cultural heritage has often focused more on the conservation of sites and monuments (tangible heritage) than local customs, knowledge, practices and oral histories (intangible heritage). However, the definition of heritage expanded in 1994 with the Nara Document on Authenticity (ICOMOS, 1994), which broadened to include intangible cultural heritage in an effort to recognise multiple voices and sources of knowledge.

UNESCO Cultural Heritage Classification

Peatlands have both natural and cultural heritage importance, providing a link with the past through their ecological and archaeological value and traditional cultural activities like turf cutting, which conjures up memories for many Irish people of childhood and summers spent on the bog. If we consider the idea of heritage as a process which is shaped by evolving attitudes, perceptions and societal contexts, then conserving heritage means constantly renegotiating what constitutes heritage and what we wish to pass on to future generations. Such negotiations are often political, as can be seen in the debates about turf cutting and peat extraction that are playing out in Ireland as we try to let go of these activities in the context of the climate and biodiversity crises. Although turf cutting is no longer a sustainable activity, many communities have a strong attachment to their local bog as a provider of fuel and the associated independence that provides. This highlights the complexity of ensuring a ‘Just Transition to a zero carbon future. However, communities around Ireland are discussing and ‘renegotiating’ the value of their local bog with an eye to the future and coming up with solutions that can benefit current and future generations (See recent announcement of funding for peatland restoration at Abbeyleix Bog). You can learn more about a community in Kildare negotiating this transition by watching this German television documentary below.
Alongside the politics, scientific significance and expert opinion also influence what is chosen as heritage. Although progress is being made, there is still a tendency to separate management of cultural heritage from management of natural heritage. In reality, the management of peatlands involves many intertwined social and ecological considerations that should be managed holistically. Heritage is linked to the past but also to the present and future as it represents some sort of inheritance (tangible or intangible) that is passed down to current and future generations. The question of what and whose heritage is conserved and how past stories are told is fundamental. Heritage choices reflect our current values and influence what is passed on to future generations, and in turn, chosen heritage receives investment and resources for its conservation. Today’s peatland communities are choosing to change the story of Ireland’s peatlands to ensure their living natural and cultural heritage is passed on.
Images top to bottom: 1. Sculpture of ‘Gulliver’ on the Liliput Way, Cloonlarge Bog, Co. Roscommon 2. Clara Bog Boardwalk, Co. Offaly 3. Drummin Bog South Carlow
When we consider heritage as a dynamic process, new objectives (peatland restoration instead of peatland mining), forms of knowledge (local knowledge alongside scientific knowledge), and meaning (cultural and natural significance) can be integrated into peatland management as it reflects living nature and culture in constant flux rather than a static ‘steady-state’ view of heritage. This means that what we view as ‘traditional’ cultural heritage (e.g. practices such as turf cutting) are constantly negotiated as societies evolve, scientific research provides new knowledge, and contexts (and climates) change. Judgements about the value of heritage have a subjective quality and the value of heritage may differ from culture to culture, and even within the same culture. Recent research is looking at ideas about ‘heritage that hurts’, where beliefs about traditional heritage are used to justify practices that damage valued landscapes. In order to negotiate the transition from these traditional types of cultural heritage, we need to remember the important place they had in the lives of many communities. Some of the ways we can remember these pasts and celebrate these peatland heritages without further damage to peatland landscapes include oral history, archiving and museums, architecture, and creative projects.
Joint Programme between UNESCO and the CBD Secretariat to deepen awareness of the links between cultural and biological diversity
In the UNESCO/CBD diagram above, biocultural diversity is maintained and conserved through the knowledge and cultural practices of various cultural and societal groups. In Ireland, the Community Wetlands Forum provides an example of a group that values the biocultural nature of peatland landscapes and their entangled natural and cultural heritages (as outlined in this report on The Role of Culture in Climate Resilient Development). The Forum emphasises the ways in which peatlands provided and continue to provide value for communities, through cultural practices such as engaging in conservation activities, and ‘through art, eco-social activities, books, photography exhibitions, blogs and heritage projects that draw attention to the beauty and biodiversity of bogs, alongside important messages of the value of peatlands for climate resilience’. Respecting traditional culture and heritage is important, yet it is also vital to acknowledge the need for change and the potential to create new cultural practices and traditions as legacies for the next generation. Communities around Ireland are transforming their relationships with peatlands and harnessing their potential as living heritage that provides value in space and time for the ‘wider community of life’ to unfold.
If you are interested in learning more about community-based management of peatlands check out the CWF Guidelines for community groups free to download here.