The New Preservation

October 26th, 2010 by Jenara Nerenberg

Bypassing the government, a company invests in archaeologists to save cultural sites.

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The Global Heritage Fund takes a unique approach to preserving global heritage sites: bypassing governments and NGOs and investing directly in highly skilled archaeologists and engineers to restore the vanishing temples, castles, fortresses, tombs, and pyramids across the developing world. Much like a venture capitalist, the head of GHF now hunts the world's forgotten places for archaeologists that have the ability to train locals in restoration practices, therefore providing jobs, securing a knowledge transfer that withstands generations, and allowing for cultural attractions to once again become a reliable source of revenue for impoverished nations.

"25 billion dollars has been generated this year through cultural attractions in the developing world," GHF founder Jeff Morgan tells Fast Company. "Global heritage sites can be the number one industry for many countries."

Morgan is a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who, through his extensive international business development trips, came to the realization that locals in developing countries often have no viable economic opportunities. With a background in urban planning and design from Cornell University, he "left" the Valley (though he still lives there) to start the Global Heritage Fund.

Today, the GHF is holding a forum at Stanford University to bring together international experts in restoration and archaeology along with local representatives from GHF's working countries. One of the main topics will be the GHF report released this week finding that global heavyweights like the World Bank and UNESCO are failing to recognize the impact its investments can have in developing countries as opposed to places such as Italy. Global heritage sites in Cambodia, Peru, and Nepal are acknowledged as severely threatened due to unsustainable development and construction, pollution, irresponsible tourism, and overcrowding--investments in these sites would translate into billions of dollars in revenue for developing countries that need it the most.

"If you invest in one site, the whole region benefits from that income," Morgan says. But there is an imbalance in the world's attention: There are 40 UNESCO-named World Heritage sites in Italy, for example, and only four in Nepal and three in Guatemala.

Morgan's view is controversial, and somewhat complicated. While he supports the preservation and restoration of globally significant sites, he doesn't want to promote aggressive tourism. What he seeks is a balance. There are pricing schemes, reservation requirements, and quotas that could be enforced to prevent massive amounts of tourists from trampling all over Angkor Wat, for example. He calls his approach "Preservation by Design."

And by raising funds and channeling them directly to the trained archaeologists and engineers that then train locals in preservation practices for the GHF-identified sites around the world, Morgan and the GHF have a chance of showing UNESCO a thing or two about preservation.

GHF creates local partnerships that include the private sector so that the commitment to preserving the sites is a shared task. GHF has already trained guides for certain sites--guides that now make $1,500 per week, as opposed to their previous $2 per day menial jobs. Morgan argues that it's best to invest in places that have some kind of infrastructure--such as airports--so that investments in heritage sites can be part of greater community economic development.

Morgan cites Lamu, Kenya as an example of grave concern to him--an oil refinery is being built right on top of the UNESCO World Heritage site there, and Lamu is now at risk of completely disappearing. Morgan argues that preservation and development can go hand in hand, but there needs to be planning, science, training, community involvement, and partnerships all at play.

The latest report from GHF, Saving Our Vanishing Heritage: Safeguarding Endangered Cultural Heritage Sites in the Developing World, which is the subject of today's Stanford forum, is an attempt to navigate that very complicated path--the path toward the twin goals of preservation and tourism.