May 22, 2012

Sustainable Preservation Initiative (Part one)

Incallajta, the ancient Incan site in central Bolivia
by Rebekah Junkermeier, Guest contributor

Looting, growing crops, grazing cattle, and playing soccer. What do all these things have in common? They’re all destructive forces contributing to the decay of ancient cultural heritage sites (yes, even soccer). While ancient ruins are just that—ancient—often destruction comes as a result of actions beyond just the passage of time, particularly in remote and impoverished areas. In an attempt to provide themselves and their family with the essentials, residents of a poor, local community will often loot the site or use it for other purposes, accelerating the damage.

“About 75 miles east of Cochabamba, Bolivia, which is the third largest city there, Incallajta is truly in the middle of nowhere,” says Larry Coben, University of Pennsylvania archaeologist and founder and CEO of the Sustainable Preservation Initiative, describing the ancient Incan site in central Bolivia. While leading excavations at this endangered archaeological site, Coben saw looting and other destructive practices first-hand: “I would talk to the community time and time again about not growing crops on this site and not grazing cattle at this site, not playing soccer at this site and I was not able to stop them,” Coben recounts in a recent interview with, a website that features top thinkers and doers from around the globe.

Out of desperation, Coben bought a gate for $50 and put it up five miles away from the site in consultation with the local community. “I said to the community if a Bolivian comes through, charge them nothing, but if a foreigner comes, charge them $10.” In an area where the per capita income was roughly $100 per year, the residents didn’t believe him. Who would pay $10 to look at these rocks? “But I knew that a tourist who had rented a guide and a taxicab or a car and had driven almost 3 hours, would certainly pay $10,” Coben says.

In just the first two weeks, 8 tourists had already visited. “So we actually had a complete return on investment in a week and a half,” says Coben, “I wish I could do that with all of the transactions in which I enter,” he added.  Most importantly, however, the community began to view the archaeological site in a different light. “They stopped growing crops and paid people not to grow crops there. They stopped grazing,” Coben reports. “It became not just an important part of their past and history, which they knew, but this site had relevance to their daily lives, not just intangibly, but tangibly a real economic benefit.” The idea for the Sustainable Preservation Initiative was born.

“I can certainly preserve any archeological site in the world if you give me enough money,” Coben says. “I'll build Fort Knox around it and make sure that no one gets in, but that’s hardly a good risk/reward calculus. I’d be spending a ridiculous amount of money for very little preservation and no community benefit.” Unfortunately, this is still the tactic that most preservation organizations use, building large and expensive museums or visitor centers in an attempt to attract tourism and protect the site from looting and decay. This paradigm, however, repeatedly fails. The museums close, the visitor centers are empty, the site isn't preserved, and looting continues.

This post continues on May 24.