The Locals Need to Dig You
Verger, Rob, Newsweek
Byline: Rob Verger
When archeologists champion development.
What relationship should archeologists have with the local community near their dig? For Larry Coben, a businessman turned archeologist, the answer is: a close one.
Coben was working at an Incan site in Bolivia in 2001 when he faced a problem. The local people were interested in the site not because of its archeological value, but because the land itself was useful. People were using the site to plant crops and play soccer, not ideal activities at a place where preservation is key. The traditional archeological approach to safeguarding heritage would be, he says, to "teach people how important it is." But after discussions with locals, they decided to try a different approach: putting a gate across the access road. Bolivians could come in for free, but foreigners had to pay. "It changed attitudes," he says, as something from the past became a present-day commodity.
"Until you solve the economic problem" that local people face, he says, "it's a luxury to be able to think about cultural heritage."
Coben grew the seeds of this idea into an organization called the Sustainable Preservation Initiative, which links the ideas of preservation and economic development by helping local people near the sites be better entrepreneurs. The thinking is that if people have livelihoods that depend on tourists visiting the area, then locals will be invested in preserving the heritage. The organization's first project was at an ancient cemetery in Peru called San Jose de Moro, where SPI invested $40,000 and created a number of permanent jobs, including ceramists, weavers, and cooks. …