Thursday, September 25, 2008

ECA "Ambassador's Fund" Awards $2.2 Million in Grants for Cultural Preservation Projects

The State Department has announced that the U.S. Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation has awarded $2.2 million in grants for cultural preservation projects in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Guatemala. The fund is administered by the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), the same part of the State Department responsible for import restrictions on cultural artifacts. For more, see:

While I am all for funding restoration projects of important sites, one of the grants to the "Conservation Fund for Guatemala" potentially raises the same conflict of interest questions I have had with other grants to "the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute" and "Heritage Watch." For more, see:

Note that part of the grant is meant for the "documentation of plundering at Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park."

I suspect that when the Guatemala MOU comes up for renewal in 2012 someone from the "Conservation Fund for Guatemala" will show up at the CPAC hearing with documentation paid for by ECA that supports yet another extension of the MOU. As these groups tend to be advocates for the restrictions in question, issues of fairness are raised, particularly if there is no guarantee that the information is compiled or presented in a neutral way.

Here is a recent example. At the CPAC hearing on the Cambodian renewal, a representative of Heritage Watch, another recipient of ECA's financial largess, acted as the primary advocate for the continuation of and expansion of import restrictions. For more, see: My recollection is that the Heritage Watch representative spoke with some feeling about looting of archaeological sites by "armed gangs," but failed to highlight the involvement of Cambodian military in the problem. This only came out based on questioning from a CPAC member to the Cambodian Ambassador. Of course, the fact that an instrumentality of the Cambodian government is responsible for looting Cambodian archaeological sites is a fact that should not be suppressed for purposes of CPAC's recommendations on the subject.

Funding such advocates for import restrictions only feeds into the perception that the entire process is deeply flawed. Does ECA really want this perception to continue, particularly when other parts of ECA spend considerable time and effort lecturing other governments about the virtues of transparency and fair process? While I appreciate the sincere desire of members of the archaeological community and the employees of the State Department to help protect the cultural heritage of other countries, the end should never be allowed to justify the means of rigging the system in favor of ensuring the broadest import restrictions possible.

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