Misguided Mandate Trojan Horse to Illicit Antique Trade

Ethiopia is known for ample heritages that attract tourists from all over the globe. It is also known that Ethiopian heritages have been stolen at different times and taken abroad. These days, though not yet perfect, there are pragmatic approaches to reduce heritage trafficking before it seriously starts affecting the country’s prestige. This approach seems to bear faulty practices from a number of directions.

The salient shortcoming, in this regard, has been the mandate of controlling heritage transfers and movement. The controlling method of ‘heritage trafficking’ has been a point of contention for the Ethiopian Customs & Revenues Authority (ECRA) and the federal body Authority for Research & Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH). Because of the mandate, the heritage control system has brought multiple negative effects on policies and daily expert routines.

The structural reform which needs to take place in order to reconcile the country’s polarized interests, maximise the number of tourists and reduce the number of stolen heritages to zero, is on the control of cultural heritages. The indifference to this question has created malpractices and resulted in tourist dissatisfaction.

Even though heritage control has been a mandate given to ARCCH by proclamation, the Authority’s power is otherwise restricted by the fact that ECRA controls the overall movement of goods in and out of the country. Experts who have an advanced skill in identifying souvenirs from heritages lack a say in the control system. This has created a situation where the work force with the skill for the subject matter is non-existent, at least where it counts, resulting in lethal problems.

While there is a national tourism agenda that thirsts for the increase of visitors, the crisis within the heritage protection system is costing the nation, well, tourists. The effort to increase the flow of tourists has also been enormous, though the handling of tourists, from their arrival into the country up to their eventual departure, has been saddening.

Most tourists are severely dissatisfied, with mischaracterization, amongst other things, after their visit to Ethiopia. It is not uncommon to hear of tourists who pack and prepare souvenir antiques in a way that is suitable for flying only to be delayed and frustrated by inspectors, for illegally exporting heritages pieces, before boarding their flight.

Whatever the value of the item they have bought, it can be taken away from them in the last minute. They do not have time to spend on processes that could help them gain their purchased properties back. Hence, they all leave with an unhealthy memory of their experiences in the country.

Most of the tourists actually buy non-heritage items open for sale in souvenir shops. Nonetheless, they find themselves mistaken for heritage traffickers at the moment they are about to board, which is annoying. Basically, if the teaching of hospitality is to hold, tourists should be satisfied and happy when going back to their respective home countries, not the other way around. They should in no ways be irritated or annoyed, though the malpractice exists till now.

Tourists are walking, breathings ads by themselves, and those that have been dissatisfied can go back home to speak and write in different medias about their negative experiences in Ethiopia. The impressions that will be created will decrease the number of potential tourists to Ethiopia. This will gradually affect the country’s image and will play a negative role in the national policy. The revenues collected from tourists will also diminish, affecting the socio-economic dynamics of the country. It is imperative to remember that quite a number of people depend on the tourism industry for their livelihoods, such as those that work as guides, transport tourists, do catering, host, make souvenirs and so forth.

The confiscated souvenirs are then sent by the ECRA, which assumes they are heritages of the country, to the ARCCH. But hardly any of them are found to be heritages, as the majority are just souvenirs and mementoes.

ARCCH, whose only purpose is to accommodate heritages, and does not have ample space for accommodating these goods, is inconvenienced into finding a temporary space for this items, until such time an appropriate destination is set up for them. Let alone for souvenirs, ARCCH actually has few rooms for heritages that are invaluable.

Disposal of items with no heritage value is a major burden for ARCCH. It is an extra job for the Authority and the disposal itself poses its own problems. Disposal of heritages that have lost their value has its own procedures and regulations. But, when disposal of a non-heritage item has to take place, the case is entirely different. The item will have to go back to the government property administration. All of this back and forth, costs money, time, energy, space and other scarce resources. Had the right job been done by the right types of experts to begin with, all of this loss to tax payers money and work force productivity would not have happened.

It is obvious that an inspector from the ECRA will probably not be able to tell a souvenir from a heritage, and can hardly identify a heritage from other items. The worry is not simply that souvenirs’ can be mistaken for heritages but the other way around, by extension abating the illicit trade of antiquities. Hence, it is very difficult to trust Ethiopian heritages are protected against traffickers, as the ones who guard them are laymen to the subject matter.

Generally, it is very important to note that heritage experts who have an advanced skill on heritage identification and administration, such as curators, should be placed on the main ports along with the customs officers. Especially, at the Bole International Airport, where international commercial flights are administered, a heritage expert is a must to control illegal antique trade so that the aforesaid problems could be minimized. In doing so, giving the mandate to ARCCH to control the movement of heritages is the first important step.

By Desalegn Birara
Desalegn Birara is a sociologist and ethnographic heritage curator at the Authority for Research & Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH). He could be reached at abalomender@gmail.com.

Published on Sep 02,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 905]



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