Wednesday 19 September 2012

US-Mali Bilateral Cultural Agreement Extended

The United States yesterday renewed the extension of import restrictions on artefacts leaving Mali without proper export documentation (“Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Mali Concerning the Imposition of Import Restrictions on Archaeological Material from Mali from the Paleolithic Era (Stone Age) to approximately the Mid-Eighteenth Century”). The original five-year agreement expires today but the US authorities determined that the cultural heritage of Mali continues to be in jeopardy from pillage. The history of the cultural property agreement between Mali and the US is detailed in the Federal Register notice available here. It originates in the imposition of 'emergency import restrictions' on archaeological objects from the region of the Niger River Valley of Mali and the Bandiagara Escarpment (Cliff), Mali in 1993. In 2007 it was extended to apply to material from archaeological sites throughout Mali, including those of the Paleolithic:
Newly threatened archaeological sitesinclude, but are not limited to those located in and near: The Tilemsi Valley; the Boucle du Baoule; the Bura Band; Tondidarou; Teghaza; Gao; Menaka; Karkarichinkat; Iforas Massif (Adrar des Iforas); Es-Souk; and Kidal. These sites represent a continuum of civilizations from the Paleolithic Era (Stone Age) to the colonial occupation of the 18th century
The restrictions cover several types of object that are sought by collectors, in particular the "ceramic forms stylistically known as Djenne-jeno or Jenne, Bankoni, Guimbala, Banamba, Bougouni, Bura and other stylistic labels" including anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures and various pottery vessels (especially popular are those robbed from graves and pottery of the Tellem culture). The Tellem funerary caves of the Bandiagara Escarpment of the Tellem or Dogon peoples contain a lot of preserved organic material including clothes and personal items of leather and textile as well as wooden items - the material that was the subject of the original list. Also protected is metalwork (figures, bells, personal ornaments, tools), stone objects (beads, personal ornament) and funerary stelae (headstones) inscribed in Arabic. Also protected are the "lithics from the Paleolithic and later eras including axes, knives, scrapers, arrowheads, and cores, Ground Stone from the Neolithic and later eras including axes, adzes, pestles, grinders, bracelets".  Glass beads too. These are the kind of objects being stripped in massive numbers from the surface sites of the Sahara and Sahel and appearing as bulk lots on the western markets (including eBay).

Sadly, the designated list does not contain the types of items that are severely threatened by pillage in the northern part of the country at the moment it was signed. It does not contain for example manuscripts and other documents from the 13th to the 17th century, especially under the Mali Empire which are currently under threat following the April takeover of Timbuktu by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist group Ansar Dine. They have declared the northern part of the country an independent state (Azawad - which has so far not received any international recognition) and imposed there severe 'sharia' law. Neither does the document do anything to help prevent the illegal export of ethnographic cultural property of tribes like the Dogon in the southeastern region of the rebel-held territory.

Map of the rebel territorial claims and rebel attacks as of 5 April 2012 (Wikipedia)


The dealers' lobbyists who oppose US import restrictions on illegally exported cultural property are up in arms about the extension of the agreement with the Mali government (Peter Tompa, 'As Islamic Fanatics Destroy Libraries, State Department and Customs Reauthorize Regulations Returning Cultural Property to Mali' CPO 19th September 2012). According to their logic, due to the rebellion in the north "it would not seem to be the best time to reauthorize import restrictions" (eh?). According to these folk (see also Wayne Sayles comments and the cosy replies on Kimberly Alderman's blog): 
the US Cultural Bureaucracy at State and US Customs seems unmoved by the recent turmoil in the country [...] Is our cultural bureaucracy out of touch with reality? 
These lobbyists assert that the MOU allegedly "calls for the repatriation of cultural artifacts to Mali": 
Does it make sense to send back artifacts to Mali where they may end up just getting destroyed? 
Is repatriation in fact the point of the CCPIA (or indeed the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property)? Does the US Customs service normally pack every seized object back to the source country without any ceremony the day after they are seized? Or do the objects go into storage until proper procedure can be observed, and the right moment chosen to hand them over with the traditional fanfare? I think these lobbyists are being disingenuous blurring the distinction between seizing an illicit export and then the subsequent treatment of the object. What is important is the artefact smuggling is stopped, this is not at all about mere "repatriation" - these are two different issues. Meanwhile the MOU is agreed between the government of the USA and the government of Mali, not with the rebels in the north, it is precisely to prevent items looted by rebels in the north reaching foreign markets that the Convention and its implementation legislations exist.

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