Friday 12 March 2010

Selling Stockpiles Increases Demand

Bryan Walsh ("Ivory Wars Redux? African Nations Move to 'Downlist' the Elephant ", Time Mar. 11, 2010) writes of the ivory trade which I have used here as an analogy to the antiquities trade:
They were called the ivory wars. In the 1980s, at least 700,000 elephants, and possibly as many as 1 million, were slaughtered throughout Africa, killed by hunters and poachers for their ivory tusks, which would be made into jewelry. The substance was so valuable it was known as "white gold," and international organized-crime arose around the trade, adding human carnage to the animal toll. [...] The ivory wars continued until 1989, when countries at the global Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to ban all trade in elephant ivory. With trade choked off, demand for ivory plummeted; African governments, with Western aid, cracked down on remaining poachers. Elephant populations in Africa began to rebound slowly.
All well and good, as it should be; cut off the demand, supplying a non-existent market ceases to be viable. Logical. The logic however implies another problem. Tanzania and Zambia are now petitioning CITES to "downlist" the conservation status of elephants so that they can sell on the open market stockpiled ivory coming from elephants that have died naturally or was seized from illegal poachers. This could have a disasterous effect. In 1997 pro-ivory trade forces pushed through a decision in CITES that allowed a one-time exception to the ban on sales of stockpiled ivory.
The idea was that by allowing a few legal sales, pressure for ivory goods would diminish, mostly in richer Asian nations, and therefore reduce the demand for poaching. If poaching was an illegal drug, stockpile sales were the methadone. But the treatment didn't work. From 1997 to 2007, following those stockpile sales, poaching and seizures of illegal ivory began to rise. In Tanzania alone, the percentage of elephant mortality attributed to poaching rose from 22% in 2003 to 62% in 2009. The wholesale price of high-quality ivory went from $200 per kilogram to $850 per kilogram in 2007, and then doubled again by 2009. As economies boomed in Asia — the destination for much of the ivory trade, at least initially — demand for white gold continued to rise.
The US however is the second largest retail ivory market in the world and ivory-trade regulation in the U.S. is confusing and full of holes, making it dificult for consumers to know what is legal and what is not. Ivory was even being traded on eBay until the Internet vendor shut down the sale of it recently. The confusion will remain as long as stockpile sales remain, flooding the market with ivory and weakening what was once a powerful moral prohibition against the trade.

Allowing further sales in Zambia and Tanzania — already considered the center of the illegal elephant trade — would likely end up increasing poaching, especially in neighboring nations like Zimbabwe where enforcement is rapidly falling apart. If poaching and trade continue at the current rate, African elephants could disappear from the majority of their range by 2020.

I think this is relevant to antiquities, the exploitation of the fragile and finite (archaeological sites do not breed like elephants) resource for saleable collectables is a form of poaching. It is illegal in many of the countries which international dealers get their goods from - they are dealing with the poachers. They argue that if there were sales of all the "duplicate objects mouldering in museums" the market would not be "forced" to buy illicitly obtained objects. But conversely it is the very availability of cheap antiquities (via the metal detector and Internet) which has led to the expansion (explosion) of the hobby of artefact collecting in certain countries. While there are a lot of them, prices are low, more people find they are affordable and collect - creating a demand for more. A vicious circle. Is the answer to the problem to pump even more antiquities onto the already saturated market? ("Saturated" because prices are low).


Marcus Preen said...

"Allowing further sales in Zambia and Tanzania — already considered the center of the illegal elephant trade — would likely end up increasing poaching"


Now why on earth would that be, if the sales are of legally sourced, stockpiled ivory?

Oh yes, I remember. Ivory dealers would offer ludicrous reasons why documentation should not be insisted upon by retentionist, socialist, fascist, nationalist, dogmatic, mean-spirited elephant conservation bodies and would broadcast to anyone that would listen that their stuff was pukka and from trustworthy (but unnamed) sources and from old (but unidentified) collections!

Why oh why don't more American collectors actually read the non-assurances on some dealers' websites and realise that despite the reassuring words used they are actually being offered ZERO assurance that they aren't buying looted goods? Or that one spokesman for dealers has said offering true assurance that all stock is un-looted is IMPRACTICAL and would be damaging to his trade!

In many areas of commerce such announcements would cause reasonable purchasers to steer clear, yet not in the case of archaeological artefacts. Are the customers blind or deliberately blind? Who knows?

Paul Barford said...

well, I have this theory that maybe collecting artefacts produces some kind of antibodies which attack and suppress normal logical thought processes in the victim.

Marcus Preen said...

I think you do them a disservice. Even someone with minimal logical capacity would understand that "unknown provenance" and "looted" are very unlikely to be entirely separate sets.

I think we have to look at undeveloped consciences not suppressed logic. After all, that's what prevails at the supply end of the chain, why not at the demand end?

Anonymous said...

Good argument against the "why not sell the stuff in museums"-- thinks through the consequences.

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