A very smart way to save antiquities

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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