Heritage is not only about the past, it is very much a part of the present’s political climate. It should come as no surprise then that World Heritage nominations and inscriptions can be highly contested processes. At present this is becoming increasingly obvious in Norway.
To briefly sum up, the islands of Lofoten made Norway’s Tentative List in 2002. Lofoten is renowned for its scenic beauty, long fishing traditions and biological diversity. Underneath the sea, we also find Lofoten’s black gold – oil and gas, yet to be extracted. If Dresden could be delisted for building a bridge, then World Heritage Status will most likely ensure that Lofoten’s back gold stays where it is – at the bottom of the sea. As a result the decision of whether or not to nominate Lofoten means that heritage issues no longer are of interest for only those particularly occupied with past.
Two years ago Norwegian newspapers reported that the Minister of Environment Erik Solheim was eager to speed up the nomination process and have the application sent by the end of 2009. That is, prior to the new management plan for Barents Sea – Lofoten area. Closing a UNESCO deal prior to the management plan, would mean no oil and a huge victory for the left-wing, eco- and conservation friendly party SV. In 2009, however, the minister wisely pointed out he would not do that – making the World Heritage List and then start drilling for oil would not look good. So now we wait – wait for the management plan which is due to be completed by 2010. After then we will know whether Norway will nominate its very first mixed site for the World Heritage List.
While we wait, the right-wing and oil friendly party FrP rhetorically asks the question again – can one drill for oil in Lofoten if the area makes the World Heritage List? The answer is yes and no. Of course one can drill for oil, but Lofoten would soon be delisted and as Solheim has already pointed out it would put Norway in bad light. One does not play fool with UNESCO; after all oil extraction does not go hand in hand with the World Heritage Convention’s aim to safeguard the heritage of humanity for future generations. As a result a possible World Heritage Status will make oil extraction difficult, but not impossible if willing to give up a possible World Heritage Status. And as such the process of listing Lofoten becomes a symbol for debates and concerns about Norway’s future.
So far the debate has been very much centred around whether or not the Minister of Environment will laugh last and play the pro-oil parties around; it is the State Parties to the World Heritage Convention that are responsible for the nominations and in this case the sender will be the Ministry of the Environment. This debate could, however, be used to reflect upon Norway’s past and future at a more general level. Oil once transformed Norway – from being a rather poor country at the far end of Europe, the oil has made a profound impact on Norwegian history. To a large extent it has formed where the country is now – ranking high on UN lists for living standard and the like. More generally oil has transformed world history. Communication and industrial revolutions would have been rather different had it not been for the back pockets of the past. As is well-known, it is becoming increasingly clear that the oil’s transformative aspect has come at a price we are struggling to pay. Thus Lofoten is more than a single case, it in many ways is a statement about what kind of country Norway wants to be in the future. It can be the beginning of the final chapter in the Norwegian oil saga and the start of a new type of industrial heritage properties – perhaps we see the oil rinks of the West Coast on the Tentative List in the future. Or it can be yet another chapter in the story we already know – or at least we think we know. The chapter might very well contain unexpected twists and turns.
As a closing note, it is appropriate to briefly situate the case in its local context. If Lofoten make the World Heritage List, how will this affect Lofoten? After the election in 2009, when the pro-oil parties did well, the administrative director of Oljeindustriens landsforening, proclaimed that the people had chosen the keep the door to the future open. In other words, the oil would be the key to economic growth and renewed viability for the scarcely populated coastline. With the way in which work is structure in the oil sector, it is not a given that the region would experience a population boost and revitalisation. It could very well lead to the contrary – a relic cultural landscape with industrial islands far out in the sea. Thus nature conservationists may claim, if Lofoten makes the World Heritage List, it is the past, rather than the oil, which is the key to the future. However, a World Heritage Status is not necessarily a benefit either. Once placed on an inventory list which is to conserve the world’s heritage, the living cultural landscape can easily change as well. Many have pointed out that these types of heritage places become stages which during the tourist season puts on grand plays of ‘authenticity’. As such one can say that heritage places are also in the danger of moving beyond stages for performance to become grand outdoor museums. The question is, what kind of museums will it be? Hopefully one with rooms for temporary exhibitions, outreach and diverse catering.