In Langscape Magazine Articles

Safeguarding Food-Producing Cultural Landscapes: The Role of the UNESCO-Greece Melina Mercouri International Prize

April 17, 2019

by Mechtild Rössler, Akane Nakamura, and Roland Chih-Hung Lin

world heritage

Canoeing through a wild rice bed in Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage site. Photo: Hidehiro Otake, 2012

On July 1, 2018, ancestral lands situated in the heart of Canada’s boreal forest were added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO’s) World Heritage List for their outstanding cultural and natural value. The place is called Pimachiowin Aki, or “the Land that Gives Life,” a home for the four Anishinaabe First Nations. This is the “newest face” of the diverse set of World Heritage cultural landscapes. Over seven thousand years, Anishinaabe communities have sustained their lives through harvesting other forms of life, while maintaining a delicately balanced, intimate relationship with nature through their cultural tradition of Ji-ganawendamang Gidakiiminaan  —  “Keeping the Land.”

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Here, sustainable use of food resources is no doubt an essential factor for their physical survival over millennia. But food does not only feed our bodies. It also feeds our souls, and that is what has supported Anishinaabe cultural identity over the same period of time. The pictograph used as the logo for Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage site speaks for itself, of the Anishinaabe’s indissoluble links with nature, with representations of life they fish, hunt, and harvest  —  lake sturgeon, moose, and wild rice  —  with appreciation and respect, as they are all gifts from the Creator.

World Heritage cultural landscapes, where people have lived in harmony with nature over generations, don’t easily fit into the categories of “nature” or “culture.”

The term “cultural landscape,” defined as the combined works of nature and people, was accepted by the World Heritage Committee in 1992 after a long discussion on how best to give recognition to places like Pimachiowin Aki. This type of place, where people live in harmony with nature over generations, doesn’t easily fit into the classic categories of “nature” or “culture.” In World Heritage cultural landscapes, the two are inextricably linked, creating unique biocultural mosaics.

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The Cuban agricultural landscape of Valle de Viñales was awarded the UNESCO-Greece Melina Mercouri prize in 1999. Photo: UNESCO/Ron Van Oers, 2007

Today, twenty-five years after the first cultural landscape was designated —  Tongariro National Park in New Zealand, inscribed in 1993 — 105 of the 1,092 properties on the World Heritage List are categorized as cultural landscapes. The growing number of World Heritage cultural landscapes illustrates the diversity of unique human–nature interactions around the world, the full extent of which is yet to be explored. Many cultural landscapes evolve organically over time, as illustrated by agricultural and agropastoral landscapes across the world, where traditional forms of land use have supported rich biocultural diversity and sustainable food production systems. Indeed, food plays a key role in forming landscape mosaics, as represented by the fact that about sixty percent of the 105 World Heritage cultural landscapes have agricultural and pastoral components.

Despite all the essential gifts they provide us, many cultural landscapes are under threat, and the linkage between people and places is increasingly threatened by numerous challenges, from unplanned infrastructure development and urbanization to increasing disaster risks and the impacts of climate change.

To shed light on the importance of cultural landscapes in addressing those challenges, the UNESCO-Greece Melina Mercouri International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes was created in 1995. The purpose of the prize is to reward outstanding examples of action to safeguard and enhance the world’s major cultural landscapes, especially to give recognition to the important roles played by local people who are the custodians of the landscapes and their values. The prize, supported by the Greek government, bears the name of Melina Mercouri, former minister of culture of Greece and a strong advocate of integrated conservation.

Cultural landscapes are threatened by everything from unplanned infrastructure development and urbanization to increasing disaster risks and the impacts of climate change.

Ten cultural landscapes were awarded the prize between 1995 and 2011, among them agricultural and agropastoral landscapes such as Valle de Viñales in Cuba (laureate in 1999) and the historic village of Maymand in Islamic Republic of Iran (laureate in 2005).

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Traditional pastoralism is still very much part of life in the World Heritage listed Cultural Landscape of Maymand in Iran. Like Valle de Viñales, it too is a UNESCO-Greece Melina Mercouri prize laureate. Maymand Cultural Heritage Base. Photo: Karamnejad, 2009

These cultural landscapes were not World Heritage properties at the time the prize was awarded, but both were eventually inscribed on the World Heritage List. The prize not only raised the profile of those landscapes by attracting the world’s attention, but it also helped local communities rediscover unique and indispensable values of their ancestral lands, as a story from Maymand tells us.

The prize not only raised the profile of those landscapes, but it also helped local communities rediscover values of their ancestral lands.

Maymand is a historic village located in a semi-arid mountain area in southeastern Iran. Just like the Anishinaabe, villagers of Maymand live in harmony with their surrounding environment, as they have over millennia, raising cattle and sheep, harvesting wild nuts and fruits, gardening, raising crops, and beekeeping. Despite chronic water scarcity, the local community is well adapted to the somewhat challenging environment through the practice of seasonal migration with animals and by developing underground water channels (qanats) used for animals, orchards, and small vegetable plots. By these means, they have satisfied their needs from their land.

The historic village of Maymand was awarded the UNESCO-Greece Melina Mercouri International Prize in 2005 for its tireless efforts to safeguard the landscape, which in turn has continued sustaining its residents’ lives. Ms. Mahnaz Ashrafi —  who recently retired after working voluntarily with Maymand villagers for twelve years as director of Maymand Cultural Heritage Base, a nongovernmental organization center supporting local efforts to safeguard their cultural landscape  —  has witnessed some positive changes in the community over the period. Since the prize was awarded, according to Ms. Ashrafi, villagers started to see their home not simply as a historic village with traditional houses such as cave dwellings. The people also came to recognize the values of what is “around the village,” including agricultural and pastoral practices, livelihoods, and the environment.

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A Maymandi woman picking almonds. Orchards and crops are watered using underground channels. Maymand Cultural Heritage Base. Photo: Karamnejad, 2009

In 2015, ten years after being awarded the prize, the village and its surrounding environment was inscribed on the World Heritage List as “Cultural Landscape of Maymand.” This has brought about further and more concrete positive change to the community. Whereas many people had been moving to neighboring cities to attend schools and universities or to work in factories, they are now returning to Maymand on weekends to engage in preservation and restoration activities. “You cannot oblige people to stay in the village,” Ms. Ashrafi concedes. But the example of Maymand clearly demonstrates that recognition of a wider range of values through the lens of a cultural landscape can offer sufficient reasons and incentives for people to become reconnected with their homeland while expanding the network of support. The story doesn’t end there. Ms. Ashrafi and villagers are now working together to rehabilitate and revitalize abandoned farms and gardens by planting Indigenous seeds and promoting the agricultural heritage of the landscape. Their journey is to be continued.

Recognizing a wider range of values through the lens of a cultural landscape can offer incentives for people to become reconnected with their homeland.

The UNESCO-Greece Melina Mercouri International Prize can further boost such efforts. After a hiatus of several years, the prize was revived in October 2017. The next prize will be awarded in late 2019, and nominations for the 2019 prize will be accepted between November 30, 2018, and April 30, 2019. If you would like to know more about the prize, please visit the website indicated in Further Reading. We are looking forward to receiving applications from Langscape readers and their counterparts!

Managing cultural landscapes isn’t an easy task, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Maintaining harmonious relationships between people and nature requires a holistic approach and consolidated efforts by many stakeholders, including local communities and Indigenous peoples. The UNESCO-Greece Melina Mercouri International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes can provide a unique opportunity to promote the importance of integrated conservation at the landscape level, which continues to increase in relevance and importance today.

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Harvesting grapes in Maymand. Maymand Cultural Heritage Base. Photo: Karamnejad, 2009

We began this article with a brief introduction to Pimachiowin Aki, a food-producing cultural landscape newly recognized by the World Heritage Convention. The inscription of Pimachiowin Aki demonstrates that the Convention continues to develop as means of supporting the world’s biocultural diversity.

Let us together protect and enhance the diversity of our cultural landscapes  —  lands that give life.

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Disclaimer: The authors are responsible for the choice and the presentation of the facts contained in the article and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.

Acknowledgments: We would like to thank Ms. Mahnaz Ashrafi, former director of Maymand Cultural Heritage Base, who generously shared with us her valuable experience and insights.

Mechtild Rössler is the Director of the Division for Heritage and World Heritage Center at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. She joined the center in 1992 and held different positions before assuming her current role in 2015. She co-authored 13 books and more than 100 articles on World Heritage and cultural landscapes.

Akane Nakamura is a Junior Professional Officer at the UNESCO World Heritage Center. Having spent her childhood in Japan’s countryside, she has been deeply engaged in cultural/production landscapes and seascapes at both on-the-ground and policy levels for the last 9 years, including through the Satoyama Initiative at United Nations University.

Roland Chih-Hung Lin is Project Officer at the World Heritage Center at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. Besides working with the Director of the center on the World Heritage Cultural Landscape Conservation program, he is in charge of UNESCO cultural heritage and cultural landscape protection projects in Central and South Asia.

Further Reading

World Heritage Centre. (n.d.). Cultural Landscapes. Retrieved from

World Heritage Centre. (n.d.). UNESCO-Greece International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes. Retrieved from


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