Better living through archeology

By Felix Salmon
June 9, 2009

I spent some very pleasant time this afternoon with Larry Coben, a man who seems to spend most his life making the world a better place by globetrotting around sites of extreme architectural interest. Nice job that man! His Sustainable Preservation Initiative is all about taking architectural sites in poor countries and making them generate cash for the locals — thereby giving them a real monetary incentive (rather than a high-minded lecture) aimed at preserving archeological treasures. It’s “economic development in an archeological guise,” he likes to say.

A lot of the money comes from tourism, in communities where a little tourism money can go a very long way. You can start with simple admission fees, but then scale into all manner of other money-making schemes: replica handicrafts, for instance, or even, in the case of one site in Armenia, making wine as the ancients did. There’s a huge amount of opportunity here, says Coben: “I’ll be dead before we’re through the low-hanging fruit”, he reckons, just because the costs of these schemes are low (in the $10,000 to $30,000 range) and the number of possible architectural sites is enormous. The slogan of his organization is “saving sites by transforming lives”.

One intriguing aspect of Coben’s initiative is its use of debt finance: he wants the schemes, where possible, to take not only grant money from donors but also to borrow funds from local microlenders. Having to pay back a loan is “a great discipline”, he says — and when microlenders are invested and want to get their money back, they also act as semi-formal overseers of the project, obviating a large amount of the need for foreign donors to keep an eye on things. Essentially, Coben is outsourcing supervision of the projects, and recycling funds into the community at the same time. He does intend to keep a substantial equity stake in the projects, just so that he can intervene if things go wrong, but at no point will dividend any money out of the local community.

Coben’s starting out with one project in Peru as well as the one in Armenia; he’s already demonstrated what’s possible with a similar scheme he organized himself in Bolivia, which involved little more, at the outset, than simply putting up a toll gate. The universe of architectural tourists isn’t particularly large, but it doesn’t need to be: just a handful of tourists per day, paying maybe $10 apiece, can transform the economics of many remote villages. That’s the kind of money, as a tourist, that you want to spend — as opposed to huge luxury-hotel bills most of which go straight to multinational corporations. This is a great idea, and I hope that it really takes off. Even the worst-case scenario — where the projects fail — is a significant improvement on not trying at all.


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[He does intend to keep a substantial equity stake in the projects, just so that he can intervene if things go wrong, but at no point will dividend any money out of the local community]

Is this a binding legal commitment, or just a gentleman’s word? And does it apply to all present and future business interests? I only ask because a large part of how Zambia got screwed on the Donegal contracts related to the social and political capital that Michael Sheehan built up while he was being mister nice guy.

Posted by dsquared | Report as abusive

Fine discipline, having the locals go into debt. Debt is quite the American thing! And if the locals can’t pay back the debt? What happens then? Bankruptcy laws in foreign lands may not be quite so forgiving as they are in the U.S.

Posted by a | Report as abusive

The last comment questions Mr. Coben’s intentions in establishing the Sustainable Preservation Initiative. I have known and worked with Mr. Coben on and off since the early 1980′s. He has unparalleled integrity, intelligence and passion for causes in which he believes. One of his greatest strengths is to advocate for his beliefs by putting them into action rather than pontificating endlessly about them or meekly submitting to their challenges by others. Great ideas don’t succeed without courage, commitment and advocacy to back them up. Luckily for those less fortunate, Mr. Coben brings all three to the table with SPI.

Having heard a presentation by Mr. Coben, it seems that equity vests on a contracted basis, subject to achievement of mutually agreed upon milestones related to preservation.

Posted by SPI | Report as abusive

“The last comment questions Mr. Coben’s intentions…”

Not at all. Why would you say that? It sounds like Mr. Coben’s intentions are good. Kudos to him. Alas, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Again, I ask, what happens to the locals should they not be able to pay back the debt? That was an honest question; perhaps someone knows the reply and can allay my concerns.

Posted by a | Report as abusive

I particularly like the potential for production of replicas. I recently read (here? in The National Geograhic Magazine? somewhere) that the production of high-quality replicas has already made inroads into the sale of looted artifacts.

And I suspect that at least some museums would be happy to contract with local artisans/craft people to supply replicas for their stores/catalogs.

I can attest that, in Italy, the replica Etruscan figures market (for selling to tourists) is thriving.

Posted by Donald A. Coffin | Report as abusive

For D.A. Coffin, maybe you were looking for this article from Archaeology Magazine, “Forging Ahead,” May/June 2009 by Charles Stanish.

I applaud the efforts of SPI and Larry Coben. I hope the communities are able to run these sites in order to strengthen the local economy and inspire a greater appreciation for their heritage.

Posted by Cherkea Howery | Report as abusive