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Home Features Looting of Belize’s indigenous antiquities unabated, says Belize Culture Minister

Looting of Belize’s indigenous antiquities unabated, says Belize Culture Minister

 The US, the primary market, agrees to help block illegal trade, and protect archaeological and ethnographic objects from Belize

After years of negotiations, officials from Belize and the United States this morning inked a milestone bilateral agreement, in the form of a memorandum of understanding (MOU), for the protection of Belizean archaeological and ethnological objects.

US Ambassador to Belize, HE Vinai K. Thummalapally, said the MOU will permit US authorities to impose import restrictions on Belizean antiquities imported and sold on the US market, from the pre-ceramic period (9000 BC) through to the colonial era. In fact, the import restrictions would apply to indigenous antiques older than 100 years.

Director of the Institute of Archaeology, Dr. Jaime Awe, who spearheaded the scientific aspect of the work, told Amandala that anything older than 100 years is deemed an antiquity and the property of the state, unless the Government has granted a permit to an individual in Belize to hold such an item. Apart from that, he said, an antiquity cannot be bequeathed or sold unless permission is granted by the Government of Belize, and it should remain in Belize.

Awe told us that, “Every once in a while you go on eBay and you see stone tools or beautiful pottery vessels on sale… Well any of these objects now, once they are put on sale, that’s against the US law.”

Amandala did a quick search on eBay to see if we could find any such item—and we did. One was marked “sold”; another, a Maya jar, is being sold for US$100, supposedly from a seller in New Mexico, USA.

Awe said that the eBay sale is still illegal if the item was bought from a Belizean claiming private ownership, because ownership is vested in state.

Manuel Heredia, Jr., Minister of Tourism and Culture, said that the trade of antiquities, the looting and destruction of archaeological sites continue unabated throughout the country, and the US is one of the major destinations.

“There are very well organized groups who loot sites looking for artifacts to export to the market… [and] hopefully this agreement will stem the flow,” said Awe, noting that the looters are Belizeans and foreigners.

Awe explained, however, that the MOU is not retroactive, and only becomes effective today, the date of the signing.

H.E. Thummalapally said that today’s signing, though solemn, is also celebratory because the same MOU is a testament to the US’s “cooperation and joint commitment to protect Belize’s archaeological heritage,” which the ambassador described as “marvelous.”

The MOU is in line with the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

The Ambassador said the MOU will empower US law enforcement officials to impose import restrictions on categories of Belizean cultural property destined for the United States, and have them returned to Belize.

Awe said that his dossier lists a range of objects of prehistory, historic, ethnological value, from a war canon to traditional dresses from the national collection, which fall under the agreement.

The agreement, he indicated, took over three years to negotiate and finalize.

“It really gives teeth and strength to our efforts to protect our heritage,” said Dr. Awe.

He indicated that the US would shortly put in place legislation to give effect to its bilateral agreement signed today with Belize.

“Looting is a fact,” said Diane Haylock, chair of the National Institute of Culture and History, under which Awe’s institute falls. She acknowledged the assiduous work of Awe and the Institute to stop the pillaging.

Minister Heredia thanked the US for its support, and he commended Dr. Awe, the US Ambassador and Haylock for their efforts to conclude the MOU, to block the illegal trade of Belizean antiquities in the US.

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