Sunday, 7 October 2012

Pakistani Resources Stretched by Policing Looting of Buddhist Relics Destined for International Markets

Pakistan has a rich cultural heritage, but protecting it from looters is a heavy drain on the country's resources. Pakistan is struggling to stem the illegal flow of millions of dollars in ancient Buddhist artefacts that looters have been digging up in its northwest region and smuggling to collectors around the world (Associated Press [Sherin Zada, Adil Jawad, Ashok Sharma ], 'Pakistan struggles with smuggled Buddhist relics', India daily News ).
The black market trade in smuggled antiquities is a global problem that some experts estimate is worth billions of dollars per year. The main targets are poor countries like Pakistan that possess a rich cultural heritage but don't have the resources to protect it [...] "We are facing a serious problem because Pakistan is a vast country, and we have very meager resources," said Fazal Dad Kakar, head of the government's department of archaeology and museums. "We have no manpower to watch the hundreds of Buddhist sites and monasteries in the country, most of which are located in isolated valleys." 
An area of particular concern is the fertile Swat Valley in the mountainous region of the northwest. More than a millennium ago, this was part of Gandhara, an important Buddhist kingdom that stretched across modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. Sites in the valley are a rich source of sculptures highly sought-after on foreign markets. A container load of some 400 of them was seized in July, though it turned out many were fakes (the people concerned have still to be charged).
There were effectively no restrictions on whisking Buddhist relics out of Pakistan's northwest in the first few decades after the country achieved independence from Britain in 1947, said Malik Naveed, a former police chief of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the Swat Valley is located. That changed in 1975 when the government passed a set of laws criminalizing the practice. But Kakar, the federal archaeology chief, said the laws are difficult to enforce given a lack of funds, and people who are caught rarely receive punishments severe enough to act as much of a deterrent.
The costs of preserving the nation's heritage extend far beyond those of guarding sites and policing local transactions in stolen objects, they also involve the costs of retaining lawyers and involvement in foreign court cases:
Kakar, the federal archaeology chief, tried to stop Christie's auction house in New York from selling a "fasting Buddha" from the 3rd or 4th century last year as well as dozens of other Buddhist relics he claimed were smuggled out of Pakistan illegally. Christie's went ahead and sold the Buddha for nearly $4.5 million and has asked Pakistan to provide proof of its claims, the auction house said. Kakar was more successful with two shipments of Buddhist artifacts from Dubai and Tokyo that were seized by U.S. customs authorities in 2005, he said. He was able to prove the sculptures came from Pakistan by analyzing the age and composition of the stone, and the U.S. returned them, said Kakar. 
Neil Brodie of the University of Glasgow is quoted saying that it was of critical importance for authorities "to put pressure on private collectors and museums whose demand for ancient relics is fueling the black market". He points out that some museums, particularly Europe (he quotes Italy and Britain), have become much "more diligent about avoiding antiquities with questionable histories, but those in the U.S. have much more work to do, he said".  As we know, neo-colonialist US collectors themselves place the blame on the brown-skinned folk of places like Pakistan who, they say, cannot look after their own heritage, which they argue is in some way "better off" in the hands of a White Man in a US collection. Meanwhile that leaves Pakistan, and any other country afflicted with the same problems, with having to either shirk its responsibilities to the human heritage and shut an eye to the looting going on, or pick up the bill for trying to stem off the damaging effects of the current form of the global antiquities market. Surely it is the minority of collectors behind this problem that should be paying, not the citizens of the countries that are the victims of the greed of these self-centred folk.

Perhaps the time is to discuss an antiquities tax on collectors, and an aggressive and extensive policy everywhere of prosecuting foreign dealers and collectors involved in handling items from the no-questions-asked trade in dodgy goods, with hefty fines going to an international fund used to police this dirty market.

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