A very smart way to save antiquities

By Felix Salmon
March 1, 2013

I first heard about the Sustainable Preservation Initiative back in 2009. Back then, it was little more than an idea attached to a tollgate. The problem at hand is the large number of antiquities and important archaeological sites which exist in poor areas of poor countries. Historically, that has been a recipe for looting; more recently, those sites have been more at risk of simply being bulldozed as urban areas sprawl. As SPI’s Larry Coben and Rebekah Junkermeier write, the way that archaeologists have historically attempted to address those problems — conservation, education and museums — simply didn’t work. So, they came up with another idea — one which would give locals a sustainable financial incentive to maintain and preserve their patrimony.

Four years on, SPI is a well established organization. The bare-bones original concept was simply to put up a fence in front of an archaeological site, and let locals charge for admission. When tourists would arrive to see the ruins, they would pay the locals, creating a brand new income stream. Today, SPI’s ambitions — and the incomes, and the number of people that a single site can support — are much bigger. The organization’s first big project was in San Jose de Moro, in Peru, a region where incomes average $9.50 per day. SPI came in with a $48,000 one-time grant, which paid for a visitors center, a snack bar, toilets, a crafts workshop — standard touristic infrastructure, which is now providing good incomes to a dozen local residents. The local crafts, based on local antiquities, are even available now on Novica.

SPI has now launched its first crowdfunding campaign, to bring the model to two more sites in Peru, and already it has raised more than $25,000 of its $49,000 goal. I really like this model: it uses poverty alleviation as a tool with which to save priceless artifacts, and in many ways the means are more important and impressive than the end.

The trick here, of course, is to empower the locals as much as possible, rather than to parachute in and tell them how to run a business. But the fact is that even if the locals aren’t particularly well educated, and have very little financial capital, they are rich in what you might call cultural capital. And a single up-front investment in touristic infrastructure can create a sustainable, profitable enterprise which can not only last for decades but can even grow over time.

This kind of thing doesn’t scale very easily: it needs to be implemented by sensitive experts who know what they’re doing. But there are lots of opportunities to build these kind of projects all over the world, from Bolivia to Albania. Those countries might not be among the world’s top tourist destinations, but that’s OK — you really don’t need many tourists to make these projects work. And it turns out, as you might expect, that archeologically-minded tourists in far-flung destinations are actually very keen to spend their money at these sites, given half a chance. Let’s help them do so, rather than forcing them to spend their money only in the big tourist cities and long-established sites.


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What do you know about Elinor Ostrom’s work? This sounds like something she would have done.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive

SPI is a wonderful idea for preserving already excavated sites. But it is wrong to suggest, as the article does, that it will have much impact on looting. Looters tend to target unexcavated sites, for the obvious reason that artifacts have already been removed from excavated sites. And unexcavated sites, also for obvious reasons, are not going to attract tourists. To stop looters, we need a different approach: a tax on purchases of antiquities to make those who are buying antiquities pay for the police needed to ensure that what they are buying has not been looted.

Posted by LarryChicago | Report as abusive

I have seen videos and papers by SPI’s founder Larry Coben. He cites Elinor Ostrom frequently dW. LarryChicago, your argument makes no sense to me. First, as any archaeologist could tell you, rarely are sites excavated 100 percent, so they frequently have artifacts and indeed people know where to find them based on the excavations. As for a tax, are enough antiquities sold sold, has any country ever passed one, and is there data to support that this would stop looting? Some hard data would be helpful, else this seems like a utopian dream. And I have read of significant looting at sites that have police.

Posted by Preserver | Report as abusive

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