|Samuel Sidibé of Mali posed for photograph|
PARIS - Samuel Sidibé, the director of the National Museum of Mali, the last speaker scheduled on Tuesday, actually opened the second day of the 40th commemoration meeting at UNESCO on the 1970 Convention when time ran out on on the panel, "Illicit trafficking of archaeological objects". Attendance appeared to have thinned out and the cameras had disappeared, but when I mentioned this to Mr. Sidibé at the lunchbreak, he said, "I don't need any cameras." But I thought what he said was important enough to mention here. As one of the other delegates mentioned, Mr. Sidibé was one of the few experts from the continent of Africa to speak at the meeting, and the only one from outside of Egypt and Tunisia.
Mali, Mr. Sidibé began, perhaps because the Niger River runs across it, has many archaeological sites. He said that problems of looting and illicit excavations peaked in the 1970s and 1980s due to the publicity of the discovery of legitimate archaeological sites and the popularity of traditional wooden masks prized on the international market. Some unscrupulous people were falsifying the wooden masks, he said through an English interpreter as he spoke in French, the discovery of ceramic masks 'sparked interest as people lost faith in wooden masks'. This led to looting in ceramic masks. 'Originally looting occurred near the site by the Niger river where the ceramic masks were discovered but demand grew and spread to an interest in pottery in prehistoric sites,' Mr. Sidibé explained. 'It is a serious problem unique to Africa because although written manuscripts have been found in the Sahil region, they are lacking for other centers so artifacts are prized. It is an unacceptable moral situation to deprive people knowledge of their history.'
'What has Mali been doing to protect it's cultural heritage?' he posed. In 1985, he said, Mali adopted strict legislation that objects from archaeological sites cannot be traded commercially or exported for sale. 'All our archeological objects found in Europe are in violation of the law in Mali,' he said.
Mali ratified the 1970 Convention as a tool for international cooperation, he said. 'Mali signed an agreement with the United States to forbid the import of objects from Mali's archaeological sites and we are in partnership with the Swiss to set up an agreement to protect our heritage.'
They have other agreements with various countries and are in consultation with France, a significant art market, he said. 'Sixteen terra cotta statutes seized by the French government were returned to the Mali museum.'
In addition to working with the International Conference of Museums and the 'red list' for stolen items, they have had training programs at the professional and technical level in the field. To create awareness of the problem, they examined 'severely looted sites' of what remained to remained to better understand their context and spoke to communities throughout Mali.
'Communities have traditionally had the concept that sites are income,' he said, 'and we have been educating them that archaeological sites are culture.' He said that they will continue with research and training programs because 'too much looting is going on the African continent.'