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Preserving Archaeological Sites By Making Them Profitable

Communities in the developing world would rather have more farmland than appreciate their ruins. But some are discovering that they can preserve their historical sites and make a profit in the process.

Preserving Archaeological Sites By Making Them Profitable

Nestled in the small community of San José de Moro, on the north coast of Peru, is an important cultural heritage site—a cemetery and ceremonial center of one of the area’s ancient civilizations, the Moche. To the low-income people who live there, the land was worth more for as a place to graze cattle or bulldoze for crops than it was for its history. But after receiving money and guidance from a nonprofit group, the Sustainable Preservation Initiative, community residents are now part of a long-term effort to preserve the site, an effort they’re getting paid for, which makes them much more excited about the preservation.

A gourd carved by an artisan near Pampas Gramalote, SPI’s newest grant site.

The $48,000 grant, with supervision by a local university professor, paid for 20 people from San José de Moro to build a visitor’s center and artisan’s workshop, and to train a dozen more to work long-term as artisans at the site. For the giftshop, metalworkers have learned to build digging tools like the ones used on-site to excavate artifacts, while others trained in ceramics create replicas of Moche pots and figurines.

The site opened to tourists just over a year ago and has already seen somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 tourists, "and the numbers are increasing," says SPI’s founder and CEO, Larry Coben. "Our first year has worked out better than expected." The spot was so much more popular than they expected that, halfway through the season, the artisans ran out of inventory—some of which went for as much as $200 each.

Coben came up with the model for funding these projects while he was working at an archeological site in Bolivia. "I used to be the CEO of a public company, and all the paradigms of preservation made no sense to me, the idea of teaching people how important their heritage is and they’ll take care of it. If there’s no economic incentive, why shouldn’t they instead use the land for looting or growing crops or taking stones to build houses?" he says.

At his study site in Bolivia, Coben had been having a difficult time keeping people in the community from grazing cattle, playing soccer, or doing other destructive things on the site he was researching. So out of desperation, and with the permission of the locals, he put up a gate on the road to the site. He told them to let Bolivians in for free, but to charge $10 to any foreigner who wanted access to the site; this in an area where annual income was not much more than that. The first week saw four tourists, made the residents $40, and showed them there was value in preserving their heritage sites.

"It changed attitudes in the community dramatically. Suddenly, preserving the land was economically viable, and they had a return on investment. That was the genesis for me," Coben says. He founded SPI in 2010 and has since gone on to fund one more project at a site called Pampas Gramalote, one of the oldest fishing villages in Peru where townspeople still fish and make reed boats much the way they did thousands of years ago. And they’re now collaborating with Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business to study a potential site in Jordan that they hope to make official next year.