06.12.2011 - ODG

"Plunder of sea wrecks enriches the few at the expense of human knowledge" - South China Morning Post

© South China Morning Post

Published in South China Morning Post on 6 December 2011.

Irina Bokova calls for better protection from 'treasure hunts' and development

Nearly three million ancient wrecks lie at the bottom of the oceans. The Mediterranean has more than 150 sunken cities, some dating back 5,000 years, some as large as Pompeii. This unique heritage, which has long remained inaccessible - and often better preserved than similar sites on land - is now in danger. It is threatened by looting, the development of underwater exploration and the consequences of unbridled industrial development.

A cultural haemorrhage is looming, amid general indifference and sometimes with the consent of the general public, which remains fascinated by the romantic image of the "treasure hunt".

Looting these sunken ships for trade is tantamount to visiting the Tomb of Tutankhamun or Borobudur and taking away pieces of the wall as a souvenir.

For centuries, heritage on land has been victim to such practices. Unesco has fought to protect it. Today, world heritage is regarded as a force for development, a source of dignity and social cohesion. It is time to provide the underwater heritage with the same protection.

For this purpose, the Unesco Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage was established. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the convention, Unesco is holding an international conference next week in Brussels to examine ways of strengthening the protection of such heritage.

The challenge is considerable. It is not a question of regulating ownership of underwater cultural property, but of giving the states the means to co-operate in order to ensure their protection.

Some underwater sites provide information that has left no trace on land. The only English bows ever found (made famous by the legend of Robin Hood) were on the wreck of the Mary Rose. Other sites provide evidence of historic events such as the sinking of the Titanic, and the undoing of Kublai Khan's troops off the coast of Japan.

We must prevent this heritage from falling prey to the law of the jungle, or the best offer. At least 300 wrecks with enough riches each to fill a whole museum have been looted in the past 30 years. Sunken for hundreds of years, their contents were scattered in a matter of hours, causing inestimable losses for our understanding of cultures and peoples. Even the Titanic, four kilometres deep, has been victim to looting. How many other wrecks are pillaged each day, hidden from view?

The underwater heritage is almost never taken into consideration in oil drilling operations. In the Baltic Sea, co-operation between archaeologists and industry has enabled an 18th-century wreck to be moved for the passage of a pipeline. A similar operation took place when around 30 Byzantine wrecks were found during the drilling of the Istanbul-Yenikapi subway. But how many other relics are destroyed in the rush to build ports and seaside resorts?

No one is suggesting halting development, banning trade or preventing exploration. But it must be understood that these findings are of public interest. Their fate must depend on an open debate between researchers, industry and politicians.

Our first priority is the widespread ratification of this convention. To date, 40 countries have ratified it. This is far from sufficient. Every citizen has a role to play in alerting politicians on the impending loss of this common heritage.

Another priority is the building of public awareness against the extraordinarily indulgent attitude towards plunderers of wrecks. In bookshops, as the festive season approaches, illustrated books depict criminals as adventurers. Imagine if thieves of statuettes from Angkor were presented in the same way?

Sunken ships are not "treasure". They bear witness to expeditions and historic contacts between civilisations. This provides huge potential for intercultural dialogue. It is a vehicle for development and tourism. It is common heritage that we will pass on to future generations. And it is our duty to protect it. Now.

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