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Roger F. Noriega: Helping the Hemisphere Recover

Helping the Hemisphere Recover and Preserve Its Cultural Patrimony

Roger F. Noriega, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs

See below for publication information
July 1, 2004

In a hemisphere where multilateral efforts have focused on combating global terrorism, the scourge of narcotics trafficking, and the sad reality of trafficking in persons, there is yet another major criminal threat that should not be overlooked: attacks on nations' cultural patrimony.

Indeed, INTERPOL estimates the value of the illicit trade in art and artifacts worldwide each year at $5 billion--only the illegal markets in drugs and arms are larger.

Latin America, with its rich and varied indigenous and colonial heritage, has often been the source of items in this illicit trade.

Consider: in the last several weeks, Spanish authorities announced the seizure of 228 Mayan and Aztec archeological relics smuggled from Nicaragua; the United States returned two dozen Mayan artifacts to Guatemala after a six-year court struggle; and Peruvian customs officials seized five mummified skulls from a pre-Inca culture that someone had tried to mail to California.

The pillage and theft of archaeological and ethnological material robs nations of their cultural patrimony. Pillage often involves the quick, unscientific retrieval of those items that are valuable to foreign collector markets. Without the proper scientific recording of the context of a find, it is impossible for an artifact to contribute to a better understanding of the culture that produced it or to reconstruction of the site itself. Precious historical information is lost forever.

Fortunately, the United States and our hemispheric partners are taking actions to stem this flow. Since 1983, we have implemented the 1970 UNESCO Treaty on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. This Treaty provides a multilateral framework that is implemented in the U.S. through bilateral agreements made possible by the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. This allows the U.S. to impose import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological materials that are subject to the looting that places a nation's cultural heritage in jeopardy.

In recent years, the United States has entered into bilateral agreements with Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru to restrict the illegal importation of Pre-Columbian artifacts, and in some cases Colonial period ecclesiastical objects. These agreements also address long-term strategies for safeguarding each country's cultural patrimony. These include training in conservation, museum practices, and archaeology; promoting sustainable cultural tourism; and improving public awareness about national heritage concerns. Colombia is the most recent country in the region to submit a request for an agreement.

In addition, the 1970 Pre-Columbian Monumental and Architectural Sculpture and Murals Statute imposes importation restrictions on historical patrimony objects without proper export certificates.

Our efforts have paid off: hundreds of archaeological pieces have been returned to their rightful homes in Latin America due to the action of U.S. officials in collaboration with counterparts abroad.

And beyond the return of stolen treasures, the United States is helping the nations of the Western Hemisphere protect their cultural heritage in other ways.

In 2001, the U.S. Congress established the Ambassadors' Fund for Cultural Preservation to help less developed countries preserve their cultural heritage. Projects it has funded include the conservation of historic sites, preservation of museum and library collections, and documentation of traditional forms of music, dance, and language. The Fund has supported more than two dozen projects in Latin America--in such diverse areas as the rescue of the Garifuna Afro-Carib language in Honduras, the digital cataloging of Bolivia's cultural patrimony, the renovation of Guyana's New Amsterdam Town Hall, and the documentation and preservation of the culture of the Palenque de San Basilio, an isolated Colombian village entirely inhabited by the descendants of runaway slaves.

These types of activities--whether the return of stolen antiquities or the protection of those still in their countries of origin--represent the best kind of partnership between the U.S. and our neighbors in the Hemisphere.

Our Hemisphere has a tradition of shared, common values. Helping protect the cultural heritage of one nation helps protect the cultural heritage of us all.

This Op-Ed was published in the following newspapers: Ultimas Noticias (Uruguay) 7/1/04, EXPRESSO (Peru) 7/2/04, El Heraldo (Colombia) 7/3/04, La Prensa Libre (Costa Rica) 7/3/04, Diario de Centro America (Guatemala) 7/5-6/ 04, La Prensa (Nicaragua) 7/6/04, El Comercio (Ecuador) 7/10/04, La Tribuna (Honduras) 7/11/04, El Diario del Hoy (El Salvador) 7/12/04, El Universal (Venezuela) 7/12/04, La Razon (Bolivia) 7/20/04, El Caribe (Dominican Republic) 7/23/04, Eco Catolico (Costa Rica) 7/29/04, and El Nuevo Dia (Bolivia) 8/7/04.


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