Looting, the subsistence digging economy in Mali; and stemming the flow of looted antiquities from Mali to the USA

Summary of the looting crisis in Mali, and the role of the antiquities market in the U.S.

Published on 21 April 2012

Author(s): samarkeolog

Type:  Blog Originally published 3 April 2012

I’d been planning on blogging about looting in Mali later, but Donna Yates asked if I was going to comment on the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee’s call for comments on its Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Mali. So, here is a summary of the looting crisis in Mali, and the role of the antiquities market in the U.S. (and elsewhere); here is my comment on the USA-Mali MOU.

[I gave the citations as footnotes; but I left the hyperlinks in the text to make the PDF easier-to-use. US DOS Comment Tracking Number: 80fe7db0 (fn1).]

Comment on the Proposal to Extend Agreement with Republic of Mali: Import Restrictions on Archaeological Material from the Paleolithic Era to Mid-Eighteenth Century

Madame Chairperson and Members of the Committee,

I am a Research Associate, investigating the trade in illicit antiquities and the destruction of cultural property. I wish to express my support for Proposal to Extend Agreement with Republic of Mali: Import Restrictions on Archaeological Material from the Paleolithic Era to Mid-Eighteenth Century. U.S. State Department Cultural Property Advisory Committee, 12th March 2012.

Here, I wish to demonstrate: that pillage of Mali’s archaeological sites threatens its cultural heritage; that Mali strives to protect its cultural heritage; and that U.S. import restrictions significantly contribute to Mali’s cultural protection.

Underlying problems

There are certain underlying, social and economic problems that drive the looting, or support the illicit trading, in Mali (many of which were explicitly identified ten years ago, by Mali’s then National Director of Arts and Culture, Téréba Togola (2002)).

  • Economic insecurity:
  • ? lack of alternative resources, where it leads to exploitation of archaeological resources;?widespread, chronic, deep poverty; and
  • ? general precarity of existence [which encourages people to generate income whenever possible, and to store resources whenever possible, in order to be less endangered when there is no work or when there are no resources].
  • Health insecurity:
  • ? exposure to disease; and
  • ? lack of access to healthcare [both of which contribute to poverty and precarity].
  • Climate change and desertification [both of which contribute to economic insecurity].
  • Natural disasters and other humanitarian crises:
  • ? Droughts;
  • ? famines; and
  • ? conflicts, all of which create acute needs in local communities and displaced populations [and thus contribute to economic and health insecurity (for example, the needs of the 'at least 200,000 people' displaced by the Malian military coup and the Tuareg rebellion)], then push those groups into chronic debt (as can currently be seen in Niger)
  • Lack of education [which causes a lack of understanding of the social value of cultural heritage, and of the long-term economic value of cultural property].Corruption, and lack of political will or law enforcement, which allow the illicit business to flourish.

The depth of the plunder

Mali’s archaeological heritage has been pillaged, from every period of its history, and from every region of its territory, since the colonial period. Extensive plunder of Mali’s archaeological heritage began after the uncovering of a Nok statue at a Stone Age-Iron Age transition site in Jenne-Jeno, in the Inland Niger Delta in central Mali, in 1941; then looting spread to south-western Mali to satisfy collectors’ demand for medieval Bankoni artefacts; then it reached Iron Age Méma sites in northern Mali; in the 1970s, it became intensive; and, eventually, it consumed medieval Songhai material, in Gao in eastern Mali.

45%, 75% or possibly even 80-90% of Malian archaeological sites have been plundered. It is ‘a true cultural genocide [un vrai génocide culturel]‘.

Looters and thieves have struck all four of Mali’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Tomb of Askia in Gao; the Cliff of Bandiagara in the Land of the Dogons; the Old Towns of Djenné; and Timbuktu, where ‘thousands of objects‘ are looted every year.

The subsistence digging economy

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 2011), in Mali, 51.4% of the population survive on less than $1.25 a day; and, according to the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), 86.6% endure multidimensional poverty.

Dr. Kléna Sanogo (1999) categorised the different types of looting in Mali:

  • subsistence looting, by locals ‘concerned only with problems of survival’,
  • ?  (normally women and children’s) gathering of surface finds, particularly ‘beads and copper objects which are sold in markets at Léré in the lake region and at Gao’;
  • ? individuals’ collection of (normally) partially-erosion-exposed artefacts and fragments sold to local middlemen and dealers (particularly tumuli in the Niger region, for example the ‘totally destroyed‘ necropolis of Sirakorola); and
  • ?organised crime networks’ illicit excavation, including
  • ? family-based gangs (where a family member sells material on weekly regional markets), and
  • ? dealer-assembled gangs (where the dealers ‘provide the excavation equipment in return for which all the finds are considered theirs by right’),
  • ? both of which are ‘truly devastating’ and
  • ? which may involve teams working ‘day and night’ (e.g. at Natamatao, near Thial, in the area of Ténenkou, in 1990, which only stopped after a digger’s death drew the authorities’ attention and they successfully prosecuted a dealer for illicit trading).

Illicit diggers normally get less than 2% or even less than 1% of the final price of an artefact; smugglers, handlers and dealers normally keep more than 98% or even more than 99%. In Mali, antiquities dealers employ ‘[w]hole villages and encampments of immigrant workers’ to strip-mine archaeological sites.

The villagers and labourers commonly earn the most meagre wages humanly possible, survival wages, a day’s work for ‘the price of a day’s food‘. Rural ‘victims of repeated droughts… sometimes turned to looting as a way to survive‘.

And there is some evidence of committees of village elders selling their communities’ cultural property in order to fund basic infrastructure (e.g. Hammer, 2009).

The illicit antiquities trade also undermines other basic elements of developing countries’ economies: for example, in Nigeria, farmers who had previously survived on half-a-dollar a day ‘let their crops rot because they were too busy digging for terracotta’, because it could fund two months’ subsistence per piece.

The Tuareg rebellions make a bad situation even worse: on top of chronic poverty and economic/environmental insecurity, there are periods of acute social and political instability, which force locals to cope with ever-more precarious existences.

Cultural property legislation in Mali

Mali has implemented legislation to protect cultural (and natural) heritage, including a law and a decree on protection and excavation of cultural property (in 1985), and a law and a decree on the cultural property trade and market (in 1986).

However, many officials cannot distinguish between a genuine artefact and a fake object, so dealers sell looted artefacts as replica artefacts or ethnographic objects. (Even if an official can identify a forgery, a dealer can show them a genuine ethnographic piece, then switch objects and sell the collector a looted antiquity.) Also, a lack of public awareness and understanding limits the effectiveness of the legislation.

Considering the concept of due diligence in antiquities trading and collecting, and specifically citing Mali as an example, illicit antiquities trade researcher Neil Brodie (1999) concluded that ‘[o]bjects from areas known to have recently been heavily looted must be treated as suspect‘. Thus, import restrictions on Malian cultural property ensure due diligence without disrupting the licensed trade.

Stemming the flow

As a local cultural official, Ali Kampo, observed, increasingly organised commodity trafficking gangs are smuggling material ‘from the poorest villages to the European buyers, and we don’t have the resources to stop them‘. Indeed, the local antiquities dealers are sure that there is ‘no problem at all with customs’, because the officials are their ‘friends’ (Brent, 1996: 66). National poverty and individual corruption are undermining the community and the state’s good works.

So, U.S. import restrictions contribute significantly to cutting off those gangs from their customers, and thus cutting off the flow of money to those gangs. That hamstringing of the gangs is fundamental to enabling the Malian authorities to implement effective programmes of development, education and local law enforcement.

The region’s museum professionals, police services and customs agencies consider the U.S.-Mali agreement to set an ‘example‘ for the international community. And once they are at less of a disadvantage, they can independently achieve significant change.

By earning locals’ trust (and thus getting volunteer site guards), and by recruiting ‘informants‘ in villages and running effective investigations of their tip-offs, Malian authorities have achieved a 75% reduction in illicit export of cultural property.

Communities have even established local museums, for instance in Nombori in the Jenné-Jeno region, and in Fombori in the Mopti region. Thus, they have protected their cultural patrimony; built community pride and local education; and provided the infrastructure for a sustainable economy of cultural tourism.

Thanks to the combination of U.S. import restrictions, local community education and Malian policing efforts, Jenne-Jeno is ‘no longer looted‘.

In consideration of the above, I respectfully ask that the committee recommend the renewal of the Agreement.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Samuel Andrew Hardy

Research Associate, Centre for Applied Archaeology, Institute of Archaeology, University College London


  • fn1: I originally posted the comment (80fe7d9b) on the page for submission of comments on the US-Guatemala MOU.


(Original source: http://www.cultureindevelopment.nl/News/Discussing_Looting/1519/Looting,_the_subsistence_digging_economy_in_Mali;_and_stemming_the_flow_of_looted_antiquities_from_Mali_to_the_USA

Back to previous page