Protecting Burma's Heritage from Above

By Matt Crook 14 April 2012

A satellite network watching over Burma’s most revered archaeological sites is being used to help the country develop a sustainable tourism industry and alleviate poverty—but all that could be jeopardized by poor planning management.

About 90 percent of Burma’s population live at or below the poverty line while GDP per capita is the lowest in the region; however the tourist industry could be harnessed to turn that around if key sites are looked after and everything is managed responsibly.

With this in mind, the Global Heritage Fund (GHF) launched its Global Heritage Network (GHN) last year as the world’s first early warning and threat monitoring system. The network uses Google Earth as well as satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe to help experts and local communities keep an eye on heritage sites that are prone to threats such as over-development, shoddy management and looting.

“GHN today is monitoring six sites in Burma, including Bagan and three Pyu Kingdom sites. A new UNESCO programme sponsored by the Italian government will provide two years funding of US $800,000 for developing UNESCO World Heritage plans and nominations with the Burmese government,” said Jeff Morgan, the executive director of GHF.
“We expect the opening of Burma to enable better international expertise to be implemented in heritage conservation and responsible development,” he added.

The Bagan archaeological area and the so-called Ancient Cities of Upper Myanmar (Innwa, Amarapura, Sagaing, Mingun and Mandalay) are classified as “At Risk” by GHN while the Myauk-U archaeological area in Rakhine State, which has come under threat with the building of a railroad, is flagged as in need of rescue.

With a fledgling tourism industry, Burma’s historical areas could be damaged by overenthusiastic development as tourist arrivals continue to increase. Local authorities have been working hard to promote Burma as a holiday destination while leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, has eased her opposition to private tourism in the country.

But there are already signs that tourism is coming at the cost of local heritage sites. Residents from Myauk-U in 2010 formally complained to local authorities that construction of a new railroad was damaging key cultural sites, such as pagodas, stupas and religious libraries. A number of hotels have been built to accommodate travelers enticed by the ancient ruins, but residents are furious at the prospect of important religious structures being bulldozed.

While Burma, officially known as Myanmar, has been slow off the mark, communities in other countries around the region have welcomed heritage-focused initiatives.

“It goes from non-appreciation of the heritage site to appreciation. Locals don’t initially understand why people from 4,000 miles away care about what’s in their backyard. But the truth is, it was always there,” said Morgan.

With many of the world’s most prized heritage sites located in some of its poorest countries, preserving these treasures could improve lives as heritage sites can be used to create opportunities for economic development that in turn alleviate poverty by injecting money into communities.

But the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is mandated to monitor threats to the world’s natural and cultural heritage, has found it difficult to monitor world-famous sites like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which is now suffering at the hands of mass tourism.

UNESCO’s culture chief Francesco Bandarin told The Art Newspaper, “All the rules of conservation have been overrun by the sheer volume of tourists. At Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, the temples are being conserved, but we did not realise that nearby, at Siem Reap, 150 luxury hotels have sprung up like mushrooms.

“We were distracted because we were focusing on conservation of the temples, not on the environment. Now it is a problem. We are not an international police force, but we do run a substantial monitoring system,” he said.

Some of the world’s most visited sites—like Tikal in Guatemala and Machu Picchu in Peru—are real money-spinners, but all that could be lost if the sites aren’t preserved for future generations. Linking heritage to poverty alleviation is, however, a fairly new trend.

“I haven’t seen anyone directly do that. I think that’s been a real hole and Francesco Bandarin for the first time [in 2010] went to New York and asked to have that especially added into the wording of the Millennium Development Goals, and they agreed to pass a resolution,” added Morgan.

“The Millennium Development Goals were drafted 10 to 15 years ago. For the past eight years, we’ve been the ones who have really pushed the agenda. When we started the project in Wat Phu, Laos, five years ago, there were 12,000 visitors annually and today there are 250,000, of which 50,000 are local. Foreigners are paying five bucks a piece, so that’s a million dollars into the coffers, and that means the site is now financially stable for maintenance and continual conservation,” he added.

John Sanday, GHF’s regional director for Asia and the Pacific, has seen the difference this money can make.

“All over Asia I do see alleviation of poverty because we are providing training and developing skills, and hopefully that provides a long-term income for these people,” he said. “Because of modernization, crafts have been forgotten and there’s a great risk of this younger generation missing out altogether on the handover of particular skills their fathers had, so I would say cultural programmes or conservation projects are incredibly beneficial—and I’m talking at the level of the local people themselves,” he said.

“When I started working in Cambodia, many locals came to work by foot. A couple of years later they turned up on bicycles and by the end of my stint after 10 years working on this one particular project they were all turning up on motor scooters. If that’s not an indication of poverty alleviation I can’t say what is,” he said.

Global heritage sites in developing countries are predicted to rake in more than $100 billion a year by 2025, according to Global Heritage Fund figures.

“What other industry can generate 100 billion dollars a year?” asked Morgan.