Making ICH in times of political turmoil

Boi de Guimarães [Ox of Guimarães]. Photo by Edgar Rocha, 2007. IPHAN’s archive.)

It is over a year now that the ex-president of Brazil, Dilma Rouseff, was substituted by her vice, Michel Temer, over a dubious process of impeachment that lead the country to fall into a deep political crisis. This instability affected enormously the implementation of cultural policies in the country, since one of the first actions taken by the new president was to extinct the Ministry of Culture. After being severely criticized by professionals of the artistic sector, who had big influence in the mainstream media, Temer backed down and recreated the Ministry of Culture. However, the ministers nominated by him didn’t stay in power longer than 6 months.

IPHAN, the Brazilian National Institute of Historical and Artistic Heritage, is linked to such ministry and also was affected by the political changes.  Temer nominated a new president  who belonged to the institution and who manage to stay in power dispite the successive changes of ministers. But the institution suffered a drastic cut in its annual budget. Because of that many processes for the safeguarding of ICH, including the researches for the recognition of intangible elements as National Cultural Heritage, have been suspended, waiting IPHAN to finally have financial means to carry on with their execution.

I started my fieldwork in this context of institutional precarity, just the day after the last minister of culture had renounced. My previous experience as UNESCO consultant for IPHAN, fortunately, helped me to have access to IPHAN´s authorities, internal procedures, decisions and data.

By returning to the institution after long period apart, my first impression was that its civil servants are carrying on with their daily duties, saying to themselves that they are not working for Temer, but for the protection of Brazilian cultural heritage in itself. For them, now more than ever, the Brazilian safeguarding policy is not a “government” policy, but rather a “state” policy. That is to say, a policy which is not subjected to governmental fluctuations.

On the other hand, there are IPHAN authorities, who were nominated with the ascension of Temer. As far as I can see, they are giving continuity to the programmes created by the previous governments, reinforcing such believe. The political changes was taken by these authorities as an opportunity to leave their mark on the institution and on the Brazilian heritage regime. A big challenge considering the budget cuts, the constant need to prove their legitimacy and efficiency as public authorities, and the fear that tomorrow a new governmental change might take place.

Since my first step in the institution I notice that the sensation of instability was dominant, making me to feel impelled to offer my help in order to have, at least, a case to follow.

The result was me getting in charge of setting up the nomination process of Bumba-Meu-Boi (Bumba My Ox) to the Representative List of the ICH Convention together with a civil servant from IPHAN’s local office. This considering that back in 2012, one year after the Boi became National Cultural Heritage, its community requested IPHAN to prepare such nomination. But, only now that the institution had the “political conditions” to proceed with it. According to the insitution, at that time, other elements were already on the queue and had the priority. Besides, in the Boi case, the focus should be on the implementation of a participative safeguarding process.

Surprisingly, in the same week an evidence that the political forces were coinciding in favour of the Boi nomination came through with the organization of two solemn session to pay tribute to the Bumba-Meu-Boi. One made by the local parliament of São Luis of Maranhão, and the other by the Congress in Brasília. In the last event IPHAN´s president announced the preparation of the nomination of the Bumba-Meu-Boi, opening the 2017 festivities of June, which traditionally in São Luis, and in many other parts of the country, are made with hundreds presentations of different types of Boi.

Folders with all the material produced for the National Registry of Bumba-Meu-Boi as Cultural Heritage. Salama, 2017

These coincidences help me to overcome the challenge of having a case to study in such context, but left me with another task: to work with and to reflect upon my double role as researcher and hands-on-heritage-maker.

While I am studying the documents produced for the national recognition of Boi as National Cultural Heritage (photo above), which in Brazil must precede the nominations to UNESCO’s Lists, I am asking myself how to prepare this nomination with the widest posible participation of  Boi communities – a requirement of the ICH Convention. Will the Boi communities want and thus be able to find consensus in order to answer all the questions of the nomination forms? Will they just focus on the discussion and drafting of a safeguarding plan?  Will they take a long time to do it? And the people involved, are they representative of all segments of the concerned communities? Will these different segments look for a unity or compete with each other? If so, will they diverge over which issues?

Considering this special political context, will this participative perspective benefit the political forces in place? Will it give them more legitimacy?

But then, vested with my other role, I ask myself if the above questions are only an assessment of the efficacy of the participative call of the ICH Convention? Or, if  they are just a reflection of my own understanding of community participation? In that case, is my view different from IPHAN and the Boi communities ones? If so which view will prevail in practice?

And what if Temer falls? Will IPHAN continue with this nomination ? If heritage-making is intrinsically political, is it possible to happen even when political forces are discredited and struggling to keep in power?


IPHAN’s head office decorated for  June Festivities. Diana Dianovsky, 2017

Cite this blog post
morena (2017, June 8). Making ICH in times of political turmoil. UNESCO frictions. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from