UNESCO announced today that it is launching a campaign to protect the cultural heritage of Haiti. Amid the carnage, this may seem like a low priority, but, as Director General Irina Bokova explained:
This heritage is an invaluable source of identity and pride for the people on the island and will be essential to the success of their national reconstruction.
In other words, this heritage, if maintained, could be a foundation upon which to rebuild. It’s obviously not enough on its own but could keep Haitians, and foreigners, driving toward the common purpose of reconstruction instead of fracturing toward self-interest. Perhaps more importantly, tourism is one of Haiti’s few sources of income and also possibly the source of its greatest potential income. The Dominican Republic had 4 million visitors in 2008.
UNESCO says it is building on its experience in Afghanistan and Iraq to help secure the cultural assets of Haiti. The importance of having a rich cultural history in the reconstruction of New Orleans also provides lessons. Sadly, it’s unlikely that the city would have received the infusion of aid and manpower it did if it weren’t the home of jazz and gumbo.
UNESCO specifically aims to keep “treasure hunters” from digging through the rubble of the Presidential Palace, built in 1918 and modeled after the White House, and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, as well as edifices in the 17th-century French-colonial town of Jacmel, which Haiti had planned, prior to the earthquake, to put up for World Heritage status. France has already offered to rebuild the Presidential Palace.
As part of its campaign, UNESCO also called on UN Secretary General Ban to consider asking the Security Council for a temporary ban on “the trade or transfer of Haitian cultural property.”