Sustainable Preservation Initiative

The Sustainable Preservation Initiative (SPI) seeks to save and preserve the world’s cultural heritage by providing transformative and sustainable economic opportunities to poor communities in which cultural heritage sites are located. The SPI mantra is “Saving Sites by Transforming Lives.” “People can’t eat their history,” according to University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Larry Coben, SPI’s Executive Director, “we need to provide an alternative to other potential economic uses of archaeological sites, such as looting, agriculture, grazing, residential and commercial uses. That enables us to help people better their lives and gives them a powerful economic incentive to preserve our shared heritage.”

SPI was incubated at the Archaeological Institute of America and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA as a response to the rapidly accelerating destruction of the world’s global heritage. War, looting, climate change, neglect and increases in “extreme tourism” are all contributing to the massive damage to archaeological sites. Particularly in poorer communities, there is no funding for site preservation, and alternatives to archaeology are the best economic uses of sites. The problem of economically superior uses is prevalent in both more and less developed countries, from historically significant buildings in major cities razed to build condominiums, to sites looted to sell artifacts by poor local residents. The current economic crisis only exacerbates this problem.

Existing preservation paradigms have proved inadequate and unsustainable, primarily due to the absence of an economic reason for local communities to continue preserving sites after the departure of archaeologists and conservators. How can someone tell a poor person not to economically exploit a site, even if destructive, without providing a viable economic opportunity that provides income to that person while simultaneously preserving cultural heritage? SPI seeks to create a new paradigm to solve this problem.

The explosion of extreme tourism and globalization create enormous potential for locally based tourism and artisan businesses. Even small local economic benefits can compete successfully with looting and alternative uses of sites. And the creation of local businesses with a vested interest in the preservation and maintenance of a site provides an ongoing and long-term source of incentive and funding for site preservation, as well as all of the benefits normally associated with economic development in poor communities.

SPI’s goal is the creation of this new preservation paradigm. Working with community and governmental leaders, local business people, archaeologists and preservationists, SPI will develop plans for projects and businesses that will be locally owned and that maximize the spending of dollars in the communities surrounding the sites. Through microlenders, charitable organizations and other sources of funding, SPI will provide grants to existing or start up businesses such as tourism, guides, restaurants, hostels, transportation, artisans and site museums and other rapidly implementable projects. Continued economic support will be tied to successful sustainable business and preservation efforts. Through this combination of local involvement, decision making and ownership, sustainable economic benefits and value will be related to and conditioned upon continued site preservation. These businesses will also provide an ongoing revenue stream to meet preservation and other local needs. This paradigm provides 2 for the price of 1–every dollar spent on economic development and the improvement of local people’s lives will also serve to preserve the world’s cultural heritage.

Of course, mere successful implementation of a few projects will not stem the destruction of the world’s global heritage. Rather, SPI will publicize, publish and educate with respect to its successes and failures, as well as create an online network of experts who can consult with archaeologists and local communities to assist them in the implementation of local economically sustainable projects. Many archaeologists desire strongly to assist their local communities in this way, but are not trained to do so. SPI will be a resource for them to call upon to meet this goal and preserve their sites. SPI will also provide course material for inclusion in archaeological curricula.

SPI is presently active in Peru and Armenia, and expects to announce projects prior to year-end in Bulgaria and Jordan.

SPI’s strongest supporters include the AIA, the Cotsen Institute and the members of its outstanding board of directors, which includes a broad cross section of archaeologists, business people, international development experts and diplomats, all of whom are dedicated to the successful implementation of SPI’s new preservation paradigm.

Visit the SPI website

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The AIA is North America's largest and oldest nonprofit organization dedicated to archaeology. The Institute advances awareness, education, fieldwork, preservation, publication, and research of archaeological sites and cultural heritage throughout the world. Your contribution makes a difference.