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Experts move to save underwater cultural heritage

Experts are alarmed over the looting of underwater cultural heritage in Africa with universities being urged to develop programmes geared towards protecting and preserving such historical artifacts.

The experts including archaeologists, local and international heritage and cultural institutions noted that treasure hunting in different parts of Africa poses serious threats to the preservation and protection of crucial underwater historical artefacts.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director in charge of Eastern African regional office, Prof Hubert Gijzen said underwater cultural heritage in countries like Mozambique face threats from treasure hunts, looting and commercial exploitation.

He was speaking at the Fort Jesus, Mombasa during a ceremony to award certificates to archaeologists from 11 Africa countries who participated in underwater cultural heritage research.

The participants were on 10-days of training to increase their professional and scientific capacity in underwater cultural survey, raise the awareness and protection and preservation can be applied to underwater cultural heritage in Africa.

The attendants from Kenya, Tanzania, Djibouti, Eretria, Seychelles, Mauritius, Namibia, Sudan, Mozambique, Senegal and Benin also surveyed Kenya Sussex shipwreck, assessed the maritime cultural heritage of Mombasa old town and identified the emerging threats, challenges and opportunities.

Prof Gijzen challenged governments to develop proper legislations that would help protect and preserve the rich historical materials hidden beneath the waters of the sea, lakes and rivers on the continent.

“Environmental degradation, such as acidification or pollution, also endangers its preservation, in addition to technological advances that drive coastal development and exploitation of marine resources,” he added.

He said looting is a criminal act punishable under the law and that the governments should develop stringent laws that would deter theft and destruction of underwater wreckages, monuments and artifacts.

“We have to tighten legislation that would help stop treasure hunting of these historical materials. The UNESCO 2001 convention on the protection of the underwater cultural heritage provides us with a roadmap for protecting this fragile and often undervalued heritage, which includes shipwrecks, aircrafts and even sunken cities,” added Gijzen.

The loots including shipwrecks, aircrafts wrecks and other important materials of historical nature are sold to brokers with linkage to industries and museums in the developed world.

The UNESCO Eastern African regional director also appealed to 35 countries on the continent to ratify the convention to pave the way for the protection of their rich historical underwater materials.

Similar sentiments were echoed by UNESCO Kenya National Commission Secretary General Evangeline Njoka who said looting of the artefacts have robbed African countries of their rich history.

“Africa thus loses its cultural legacy. Scientific information and resources of greatest educational and recreational interest to the local communities,” observed Dr Njoka.

She noted that the preservation and protection of the unique underwater archeological artefacts provide greater opportunity to the diversification of the tourism industry in Africa.

“Today tourism and recreation are a higher factor of employment in any coastal region than the fishing industry. 37 per cent of world tourism is motivated by cultural heritage. This makes the submerged heritage not least as a potential venture of sustainable tourism development in Africa, which is however disappearing rapidly,” she added.

National Museum of Kenya (NMK) acting Director General Stanvas Ogalo noted that countries need to allocate adequate funds to fully exploit underwater archaeology in Africa where research has found its interaction with Greece, China, Persian and India.

“Underwater cultural heritage is an important resource for humanity that needs to be protected and preserved for posterity. However, managing this heritage resource represents a balance among competing forces and is subject to changing financial climates. Without proper management, the exploitation of marine environments would result in a conflict and endangered resources of which underwater cultural heritage is part thereof,” observed Ogalo.

He also noted that lack of undergraduate and graduate programmes on underwater archaeology is a major drawback facing the sub-Saharan African countries.

“As such it is only through increased capacity building that we as a region can take this forward. It’s for this reason that I thank the Japanese government for funding this training worship and UNESCO for continued support of Under Water Heritage programmes in the region,” he added.

NMK Head of Underwater Archaeology, Bita Ceaser, the only Kenyan underwater cultural heritage specialist, challenged African universities to develop marine archeology and other related disciplines for the countries to fully exploit the untapped submerged resources.

He further observed that the underwater cultural heritage places Kenya as a key recreational tourism destination in the world.

“There is a huge potential we can actualize in our sea. We have huge potential for recreational tourism where tourists will visit to see our submerged cultural heritage. This is even possible because even the sea water is warm and that is why most of the time, we do our survey and research wearing just shorts,” he added.

Ceaser said Kenya has made huge milestones in protection of her underwater cultural heritage with NMK being positioned as a center of research and studies on the continent.

He said it was the first country in Sub Saharan Africa to undertake underwater archaeological works and recognize the value of underwater cultural heritage.

This was in 1977 during excavation of ‘Santa Antonio de Tanna’ shipwreck in Mombasa whose exhibition is now in Mombasa Fort Jesus Museum.

The archaeologist said over the years the country has undertaken underwater archaeological surveys to document and understand the underwater cultural heritage.

By Galgalo Bocha

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