Intangible Heritage & Ecological Sustainability

Working towards an ecologically and climate-robust future

The need to sustainably manage our natural environment is one of the great themes of our time. We see this reflected in political party programmes, the social debate, and in various publications.

For example, former Government Architect Floris Alkemade urgently calls on us to 'get moving' and to face the changes that are necessary to face the problems of declining biodiversity, climate change and water management (The Future of the Netherlands, 2020: 16). Partly because of this social urgency, the Knowledge Center Intangible Heritage Netherlands has chosen ecological sustainability as the focus of one of the research areas for the coming policy period. We focus on forms of heritage that contribute to biodiversity and a sustainable approach to our environment. In addition, we look at possibilities with which practitioners, if necessary, can make the intangible heritage more sustainable. We want to support involved heritage communities in exercising, safeguarding and possibly disseminating their heritage. We believe that intangible heritage can be an effective and, also from a policy perspective, often underestimated lever to achieve environmental sustainability. Our second objective is to involve the intangible heritage communities in a process of making their heritage more sustainable.

Intangible heritage, 'living heritage', has many qualities: it can connect people with each other, with the place of residence and with the environment – including the natural environment. Carrying out and experiencing intangible heritage together brings joy, keeps knowledge alive, connects us with the past and builds a bridge to the future. Can it also help make this future more sustainable? At a time when we relate to climate change, and at the same time biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate, this is an important question. While we may be inclined to seek solutions to these challenges in advanced technological developments, in the coming policy period (2021-2024) we will examine what, in this area, is - or can be - the contribution of intangible heritage.

Can intangible heritage also help make this future more sustainable?

In doing so, we are shifting the focus from large-scale and technical approaches to the more local and cultural domain. UNESCO calls this “intimate knowledge” (UNESCO: Changing minds, not the climate 2021, 3). This argues that, where purely scientific knowledge often objectifies nature, we can also focus on local forms of knowledge, which pay more attention to specific circumstances. These (often) local knowledge and skills – the overview of the ecosystem of the heathland that the shepherd grazes with his flock, the skills of the 'grassland irrigators' who channel water flows according to a traditional system, or the hedge weavers who weave shrubs into a hedge into a dense, impenetrable barrier that enhances biodiversity – is often only known to a limited number of people and not always taken seriously. There are also forms of intangible heritage with a sustainable approach, which are also unknown to the Knowledge Centre. Don't these forms deserve greater fame and dissemination? Not only among a wide audience, but also among municipal, provincial or national policymakers, who can make use of the relevant knowledge and skills?

Finally, the relevant question is whether involvement in certain forms of intangible heritage also results in an attitude to life that generally has more respect for the forces of nature. That you learn to 'move with the landscape', as grassland irrigator Eric Brinckmann calls it. In its climate memorandum, UNESCO also argues in favor of the importance of the aforementioned 'intimate knowledge', because this would contribute to recognizing that there are more actors than humans.

Because emotional aspects play a central role in intangible heritage in addition to practical, social and economic aspects, this offers special opportunities for creating a connection with the environment and bearing responsibility for a sustainable future. For example, by becoming emotional co-owner of land.

What do we want to research?

In the coming policy period we will examine which forms of intangible heritage contribute to the sustainable use of the nature around us. We will identify and document the nature and effect of these traditions, skills and customs. How can communities be supported in their activities and in safeguarding their heritage for the future? And how can they act as inspiration? The themes on the basis of which we deal with these questions are: animals and sustainability, water and land, urban agriculture and trees. In addition, the Knowledge Center wants to investigate how communities can make their own heritage more sustainable so that they can continue to exist in the future.

How do we want to do that?

Fieldwork will be done to answer these questions; visited communities, and discuss and research their heritage. Various networks are being developed for the deepening and exchange of knowledge, both with various scientists and with fellow heritage institutes, who will present their findings in expert meetings and conferences, among other things.

What will we deliver?

The Dutch Center for Intangible Cultural Heritage will develop various products for the heritage community's to support them in their assurance processes (see 'Research agenda' below ) . The Dutch Center for Intangible Cultural Heritage wants to in addition make efforts to create a broader stage for 'green' forms of heritage at give and inform policy makers about and interest in the positive contributions that this forms of intangible heritage can deliver to awareness around sustainability , sense of responsibility, biodiversity and a climate robust landscape. This also includes attention for a 'greener' Intangible Heritage Network (and later the Inventory of Intangible Heritage Netherlands).  


Man as a beaver

In order to gain insight into the above questions, conversations were held with a number of heritage communities in the past year. An example of intangible heritage with a sustainable impact is the traditional sustainable agricultural technique of 'grassland irrigation'. This almost forgotten method w ill already passed since medieval peasant son or daughter, and now also on land manager grounds manager . This is a sophisticated system in which grasslands are irrigated by water from rivers, streams and sources. Is hereby makes use of small differences in height, wherein "stowed water 'is distributed over the slots and weirs, just like the beaver is doing with his dams system. Like this the desired water level is maintained over a large area and changes in weather and climate are anticipated. Because lime and minerals end up in the soil with the water, a grassland is created full of herbs with a rich soil life , which in turn attracts insects and birds. It also provides a high-quality hay yield. One of the areas where (next to, for example, the Pelterheggen in Brabant) grassland irrigation is applied is estate H et Lankheet, under Haaksbergen.

Eric Brinckmann, representative of the Waterpark Foundation and Fieldwork Center Het Lankheet, explains: “What you do is move with the landscape. You follow the water. Every week there is a different situation that you have to respond to. In this way we take care of the landscape, and the landscape takes care of us again. Thirty volunteers work at the foundation. Together we are committed to the restoration of biodiversity and the creation of a climate-robust landscape, which fits in with nature-inclusive agriculture. The volunteers feel responsible and involved; they feel emotionally co-owner of the landscape.' It strengthens the appreciation for nature.

Grassland irrigation is a example of a respectful treatment of nature, in which man acts more as a partner of the landscape than as a ruler . It is also possible contribute to a responsible person sustainable basic attitude , a form of 'eco-citizenship ' . 


There are also forms of intangible heritage that do not, or only partly, contribute a sustainable technique as outlined above, but do contribute to an appreciation of the natural environment and to a sustainable lifestyle in the broadest sense. In its research, the Knowledge Center Intangible Heritage Netherlands uses the concept of 'Eco- or EnviroCitizenship' or 'green or eco-citizenship', which refers to responsible, proactive and environmentally aware behavior of individuals and groups, with which they feel using public space for a sustainable way of life (Jagers et al. 2014). Another concept is that of the 'citizen scientist', the 'citizen scientist', who can make a valuable contribution in various fields with his knowledge and experience. 'Urban gardening' – growing food and greenery in, around and for the city – is an example of a social practice in which citizens contribute their knowledge and work together on a green city and sustainable food production. This has both an ecological and a social impact, which contributes to EcoCitizenship. Intangible heritage such as recreational mudflat hiking or bird watching (which culminates in the National Garden Bird Count that the Bird Protection Organization has been organizing annually since 2003) are examples of traditions that both provide knowledge and can contribute to the appreciation and emotional connection with nature, and thus to a attitude to life focused on sustainability (see also Ganzevoort 2021: 200).

Old knowledge and new forms 

It is notable in this regard, which different traditions have already been effectively adapted by the practitioners in recent times, by means of the sustainability component more prominently to bring. The initial purely practical use, often aimed at 'harvesting from ' or 'using' the natural environment, seems to have given way to support for that environment. In this way, old knowledge and expertise find new applications that , in addition to being of practical use, also are aimed at making the environment more ecologically sustainable. Set an example beekeepers who kept bees for honey, but are now also committed to the biodiverse surroundings by their to support bees , for example by planting flowers . Provide another example the Frisian protectors of lapwing nests , where they initially sought the eggs, until the declining lapwing population made this irresponsible. The small professional group of river fishermen is also aware of the declining biodiversity. He puts his knowledge of the underwater world in, at the request of various authorities (such as Imares), to changes in the fish stock to monitor , or fishing to be transferred into rivers where the flow is prevented by locks. Bee the power plant in Maurik works at the company Frans Komen & son for example on the 'Eel over the dike' project, which allows the eels to swim to the North Sea, and further to their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea.  

In this way, old knowledge and expertise find new applications that , in addition to being of practical use, also are aimed at making the environment more ecologically sustainable.

Different forms of greening the urban environment can also be viewed in this light. Various forms of urban agriculture - having n allotments, or managing urban orchards or gardens with the aim of own vegetables or fruit to grow  has just like before a practical goal: to grow food. But there is - in some cases - has now become associated with a broader purpose, namely the sustainable want to produce and consume food. This also includes the popularity of local products and 'farmers' markets'. 

Finally, one last example of a new interpretation of an old connection , is use around trees. This 'king of plants' traditionally stimulated the ' religious, mythological and folkloric imagination ' (Keulartz 2020: 57). Special trees, sometimes considered sacred, served as the center of community life, and seem to be taking this place again in several forms of intangible heritage. Examples of this are n various national and international tree elections, National Tree Day and National Tree Planting Days . An another local example: The new customs that are developing around the Overasselt fever or patch tree. This to use seem to reflect a renewed interpretation of our connection with nature, and the role of the tree within it. 

Making these heritages visible can support practitioners, inspire other heritage communities and the support base increase in the administrative field. Intangible heritage, as it turns out, is dynamic: it is constantly redesigned in interaction with the environment and changing social circumstances. It takes place in the present, has relations with the past, but can be understood above all as a 'practice of future making', as Rodney Harrison and others have recently shown for the entire heritage sector (Harrison et al. 2020). It concerns the transmission of for the future relevant heritage . 

Awareness and policy makers 

The positive contribution that intangible heritage can make to the to green and making our natural environment more sustainable is still relatively unknown, also among policymakers, so say Sandra Fatonica and Linde Egbert, affiliated with the Technical High School in Delft and the University of Amsterdam respectively: 

'Heritage is also a valuable source of knowledge and scientific information, which can be ues to inspire and inform environmental and climate change management and politics' (Fatorić et al. 2010, 1). They add: 'environmental benefits of cultural heritage are poorly considered in decision making' (ibid., 6).

Filling this gap is one of the goals for the policy period 2021-2024 of Knowledge Center Intangibles Heritage Netherlands. After all, much intangible heritage can be additionally supported by specific policy and at the same time serve as an instrument for policy goals.

Municipalities can make use of the Environment and Planning Act, which will come into effect in 2022, to support certain forms of heritage: for example certain parts of the cultural landscape are regarded as valuable. For clearing hedges you can a permit will be required – and indirectly support the intangible heritage of hedge weaving (Altenburg & Elpers 2020, 14). 

Municipalities themselves benefit from their inhabitants to be involved in the greening of the living environment . Not only because they themselves can benefit from the knowledge and skills of its inhabitants, that if ' citizen scientist ' , 'citizen scientists', a lot of knowledge can insert. In addition, greening of the municipality or city in general as an increase in the enjoyment of living to experience, while working together on or managing a green project increases social cohesion, and the sense of responsibility to manage this environment well reinforced . In addition, specific local forms of immaterial heritage strengthen local pride and identity. 

In a broad sense it seems research to point Which nature experiences strengthen the connection with nature in general, and strengthen the willingness to take action for nature and nature conservation, thus contributing to a form of eco citizenship (Gansevoort 2021: 200, 265). We have already mentioned a number of forms of heritage that are directly related to managing or supporting environmental sustainability, and the importance of direct nature experiences and nature involvement in developing a sustainable attitude to life. It is important for a sustainable future that governments and policy makers realize this potential of intangible heritage.  

What the chair of the Dutch UNESCO committee Kathleen Ferrier said in 2021 about climate adaptation, also applies to other forms of intangible heritage:

'When climate adaptation is based on local traditions and customs, it enables local communities to take matters into their own hands and initiate change. It also helps to let citizens participate in the decision-making process about climate adaptation, thereby increasing support for policy decisions' (UNESCO Newsletter 2021).


Intangible heritage is dynamic . In order to survive in the future, it must continuous be adapted to the changing environment . This also means that some forms of intangible heritage must themselves be made more sustainable in order to become future-proof. 

Examples of this are the so-called bonfires around the turn of the year and the Easter fires. The tightened laws and regulations regarding the emission of toxic substances and particulate matter that are released during wood combustion require adjustments. In the case of the fires, in addition to the environmental standards, the safety standards have also been tightened, partly after the New Year's fire on the beach in Scheveningen in 2018. The drying out of the ground as a result of climate change poses an extra risk of fires at Easter bonfires. The environmental impact of these types of events will only be given more weight in the future. In addition, there are several practitioners who themselves have initiated a change in the practice of their heritage, because they realized that the old form was no longer justifiable in the present time. It is remarkable that these adjustments can lead from an exploitation of the natural environment to a contribution to its protection. In Friesland, for example, the former seekers of lapwing eggs have started to protect the nests of this now endangered meadow bird. This also raises the question of what constitutes the core of a tradition. In this case, it now seems to have shifted from harvesting the eggs, to being connected to the pasture landscape and a sense of responsibility for the lapwing stock.

It is remarkable that these adjustments can lead from an exploitation of the natural environment to a contribution to its protection.

Also practitioners of crafts should himself Bera d and their materiality general use and possible waste. Sometimes residual products can be processed in an innovative way. Like this will and in the CraftsLab Wool, which organizes the Knowledge Centre, some shepherds working together immediately designer . Of innovative methods she processes the surplus wool of the Dutch heath sheep into new materials (Bakels & Jaarsma , 2021, 53). The second objective of the Dutch Center for Intangible Cultural Heritage is therefore focused on making intangible heritage more ecologically sustainable yourself. We do here participative research to and guided and practitioners who oppose above or face similar challenges in the process of transition . It is intended that attention is also paid to the creative opportunities that transition offers . 

Our research agenda (2021-2024) 

In the coming policy period goes the Dutch Center for Intangible Cultural Heritage - along with heritage communities and various academic partners – two routes in the field of sustainability. 

In one trajectory, the DCICH helps intangible heritage communities to make them more sustainable (greening) of their intangible heritage. An inventory is made of which challenges and opportunities there are and what experiences heritage communities already have with making their heritage. Which parts of the heritage does it concern? What good examples are there? Which partners do heritage communities need to make their heritage more sustainable? 

In the other trajectory is the specific attention in front of the question of how intangible heritage (active) can contribute to an environmentally sustainable future. Which forms of intangible heritage have a strong sustainable component? Contribute these forms of intangible heritage directly or indirectly to a biodiverse environment and a sustainable future? To eco citizenship? What exactly does this impact consist of? What knowledge and skills does it concern? 

How can these be supported and made more visible and also used more widely? In which networks is the intangible heritage embedded and which stakeholders play a role ? How do the practitioners deal with with human-nature relations and interconnectedness? What significance do the knowledge and skills of non-human presences, in particular plants and animals, play and how do they form the intangible heritage together with people? What can we learn from that?

What challenges do heritage communities face when exercising, safeguarding and/or making their heritage more sustainable? How can the DCICH support them? What inspiring examples are there that can be shared – with other heritage communities, with policy, with the general public? 

It was decided to answer the questions by focusing on five themes. Preliminary research has shown that sustainability plays a specific role in these themes: 

  • Animal and sustainability. Knowledge and skills in transition . Under the influence of climate change and the loss of biodiversity, a number of practitioners have switched by fishing, hunting and collect to contribute to biodiversity. This includes a number of cases, which are partly registered (or newly recorded) are in the Network and Inventory like river fishing, beekeeping and lapwing nests search , etc . 
  • Water and land. Due to climate change and the impoverishment of nature, traditional knowledge is once again topical and used for sustainable use and management , such as grassland irrigation , hedge weaving, craft of mill ear etc . On Bonaire, the regulation of rainwater via dams and cisterns is of great importance.  
  • Urban agriculture plus. Diverse forms of food and other greenery is planted and grown in and around the city. From ground to mouth. Examples are urban vegetable gardens, farmers' markets, allotment culture, guerrilla warfare gardening , botanical sidewalk chalk, etc. 
  • Trees as focal point of intangible heritage. It is striking that many old and new customs around trees and forests come to the fore , which we still have little insight into. These seem to be a reflection of a renewed interpretation of our connection with nature , and the role of the tree within it . Examples are the fever tree of Overasselt, traditions around the 'pine fetch', and the 'tree that saw everything' in the Bijlmer disaster monument . 
  • Attention to making the intangible heritage itself more sustainable. 


The DCICH will develop various products for heritage practitioner s to support them in their security. in addition do we want us make efforts to create a broader stage for 'green' forms of heritage at and, among other things, inform policy makers about and interest in the positive contributions that particular forms of intangible heritage can contribute to awareness, a sense of responsibility, biodiversity and a climate robust landscape. Specifically will be developed: 

  • A brochure about the sustainability of intangible heritage as an incentive and inspiration for practitioners intangible erfgoe d. With many examples and ' lessons learned '. Planning: publication summer 2022. 
  • A brochure about 'Animal and Sustainability' for heritage beoefena run and governments. With inspiring examples. Digital and printed. Schedule: digital publication of a first version in June 2022, delivery of the definitive brochure in the autumn of 2022. 
  • A brochure for governments and interested parties about the way in which intangible heritage , including urban agriculture, can contribute Bee making it more sustainable and the greening of the environment. Digital. Schedule: 202 1 -2023 
  • Products (including seminars, international publication) that are in line with the 'Water and land. Intangible Heritage and Sustainable Development' (working title) of the Center Agricultural History CAG . Schedule: 2022-2024. 
  • A report with ' lessons learned ' round An to plan even further collaborative project "I mmaterieel heritage management of land and water ' in the Caribbean areas in The Netherlands. Schedule: 2023 
  • A digital, interactive maybe 'trees and intangible heritage "- card for a wide audience. In collaboration with various tree organizations. Maybe an exhibition 'Trees and people'. Schedule: 2023-2024 
  • Contribution/design learning module "Intangible heritage and Sustainability" over said areas in collaboration with the Nature College, Wageningen. Schedule: 2023-2024 
Voice of the Heritage Community: Hedge Braiding

Hedge weaving is a craft in which weavers make existing hedges, usually thorn hedges, impenetrable. The hedges contribute to sustainable management of the landscape and at the same time promote biodiversity. Lex Roeleveld of Heg&Landschap Foundation:

'Ecological sustainability is central to hedge weaving. In the way we braid, making a hedge that is as attractive as possible for nature is paramount. Robust, dense and wide hedges are very useful to songbirds and hedgehogs. We also promote the creation of new hedges and when planting we make sure that native plant species are used. We use seed from the region. The plants are then less susceptible to disease and bloom at the right time, so that they do not upset ecological processes.'

Perspective on research on intangible heritage that contributes to an ecologically sustainable future Lex Roeleveld: 

' As hedge weavers, we fully endorse the analysis made. It is made for us. We consider our craft very strongly as a living craft that we need to adapt to the needs of our time. It is moving with the times in order to shape the future. A braided hedge remains, just like in the past, a dense, wedging partition , but we now focus on biodiversity in the implementation. The ' eco- style ' in heggenvlechten as d á's not anno NOW. That's not all. One of the beautiful aspects of hedge weaving is , that the stories and the craft give people so much pleasure and at the same time give them more knowledge and awareness. The latter is not so much about the craft as indirectly, about the role of hedges, including the often centuries-old trees that are in them. Plant more hedges to improve the quality of our soils, restore biodiversity, landscape beauty and health, or how a relatively small heritage community can make a huge contribution to a more biodiverse and sustainable future. That's not to say we don't need support. We benefit greatly from support in how we can best safeguard our activities. Research into the contributions that hedges can make to our future is more than welcome. And finally, it is very important that we reach a wider audience, especially important players such as education, governments, site managers and companies. We can't do it all ourselves. We are too small in number for that and we do not have all the expertise in-house. This will not only apply to us hedge weavers. In short, we would very much like to see our passion for the craft and our commitment to biodiversity and climate reinforced by supporting research. We can't wait to get started on that. ' 


Researching these themes involves collaboration with various partners: 

Universities Wageningen and Nijmegen 

The DCICH maintains t contacts with various clusters and/or university researchers who are concerned with themes related to sustainability and nature experience. 

At the Radboud University in Nijmegen, within the Institute for Science in Society, the Center Connecting Humans and Nature (CCCHN) located. The CCHN conducts research into human-nature relationships and all kinds of connections between humans and nature (see ). Since these are important themes for thinking about intangible heritage, collaboration between the Knowledge Center Intangible Heritage Netherlands and the CCHN at the RU is an obvious choice, especially now that ecological sustainability has been chosen as a spearhead in the coming years . The collaboration will consist of exchanging knowledge and contacts and setting up joint research projects (by students). 

At the University of Wageningen/Wageningen University and Research there are contacts with, among others: Roel During, working in the field of Biodiversity and Policy. The Biodiversity & Policy team works together with clients, partners and stakeholders to realize a robust, sustainable, liveable, profitable and biodiverse landscape. for the ze line of research is interesting , Which in Wageningen examined is becoming how local cultures are the source of new ways of interacting with nature. P olicy and w food shelf have the nature decontextualised a high degree. In the focus of the research - which also takes into account historical dimensions - are now processes of 're- embedding ' that can lead to new shapes and biodiversity. 

Nature College, Wageningen 

There are also plans to collaborate with the NatuurCollege , led by director Dr. Paul Roncken, a network of (higher) educational institutions and nature conservation organisations. It NatureCollege aims the relationship between man and to research and strengthen nature and couples this with an extensive educational program, developed for a wide audience. 

The Center for Agricultural History (CAG) , Leuven 

It CAG is recognized as a knowledge center and heritage service provider for agricultural heritage in Flanders and Brussels, and is also closely associated with sister organization the Interfaculty Center for Agrarian History at KU Leuven. CAG works together with the DCICH in a multi-year project in which the institutes investigate and document how specific forms of intangible heritage can contribute to strengthening ecological sustainability, focusing on the theme of 'water and land'. In the project, the Results from Flanders and the Netherlands compared, heritage communities at turn into brought together, and a learning network on intangible heritage and sustainability in Flanders and the Netherlands is being built. It project becomes currently prepared and will start in 2022. D eze collaboration is not alone inspired by the many years of good cooperation and exchange between the two organisations. In the Netherlands and Flanders, there are many similarities but also clear differences in the field of (intangible) heritage policy, heritage care processes and approach to sustainable development. This close relationship with clearly different accents and approach is an ideal breeding ground for a stimulating and inspiring exchange of knowledge in learning networks.


Are you interested in any of the topics? Or would you like to be involved in the research?

Send a message to adressing Jet Bakels or Sophie Elpers

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