Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Brookings Fellow on Libyan Heritage Policy Overlooks the Biggest Threat Ahead: Antiquities Looting

William Y. Brown, a nonresident Brookings Institution Senior Fellow who is former Science Advisor to the U.S. Interior Secretary and President of the Bishop Museum, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Woods Hole Research Center,weighs in with a number of policy suggestions for how to make the best use of Libya's heritage in the post-Ghaddafi era. Among other ideas, Brown urges Libya to follow the example set by developed nations and

earmark funding for museums and land preservation efforts with fees on income or activities. For example, the Land and Water Conservation Fund in the United States was established for acquisition of important public lands and is funded by companies engaged in offshore oil and gas activity. Libya might consider such a heritage fee levied on its own oil and gas production.

Given that oil and gas are where the money is,such a fee would make good sense, though it has to be pointed out that the economic logic taxing the users of land and water (the offshore oil and gas companies) to pay for conserving land and water does not translate to users of oil and gas resources paying for conserving heritage. The exploiters of heritage are those who would profit from heritage tourism, and those who profit from selling antiquities. Logic would dictate taxing both those markets,if it could be done. But the heritage tourism market is not yet developed, and while Brown is eager to see it developed because it has the potential to make a lot of money, he shows no interest in harnessing the economic power of that market to pay for heritage protection more generally. And the antiquities market, of course, is not located in Libya, so Libyans would have no way to tax it.

Speaking of the antiquities market: one of the striking features of Brown's argument is that it almost completely ignores the biggest threat to Libya's heritage going forward: market-driven looting of archaeological sites. Brown himself notes that the Benghazi and Apollonia Museums were looted during the uprising, but beyond calling vaguely for immediate action to provide physical security for movable objects and to recover items recently stolen, he sloughs off the issue: "Mostly, however, the problem is a lack of planning, funding and management that preceded and is unrelated to the Arab Spring."

That is very myopic. Libya did not suffer from large-scale looting of its archaeological heritage before the revolution, but it is likely to come under attack by looters in the months and years ahead. As we know from a multitude of examples, any country possessing large stocks of unexcavated sites holding antiquities for which collectors are eager to pay millions is going to be attractive looters. Where the policing power of the state is strong, looters will be deterred, but when authoritarian or totalitarian regimes fall or even weaken, black markets will flourish. As Donald Rumsfeld put it, shrugging his shoulders at the looting that erupted in the wake of the toppling of Saddam, "freedom is untidy". Public education campaigns -- may do something to keep at least some citizens from turning to looting, but there is no substitute for a robust policing capacity.

It would be helpful if development specialists at Brookings and elsewhere paid at least some policy attention to how best to plan, fund and manage the physical security of archaeological sites, rather than ignoring the problem.

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