Heritage regained

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am

The Asian tsunami killed thousands when it hit the city of Galle in southern Sri Lanka, destroyed homes and businesses and caused the world's worst rail disaster. But the massive stone ramparts of the city's coastal fort broke the onslaught of the 5-metre-high body of water, and the historic European-built town within it escaped relatively unscathed.

Ironically, it was the fort's maritime archaeology unit that sustained the most severe damage: a haul of treasures salvaged from the wreck of a 17th century Dutch East Indiaman was swept back into the sea. The Avondster's 3-metre-long iron anchor, a cannon and a large collection of rare ceramics were all reclaimed by the ocean, and one of Asia's most progressive heritage conservation projects was left in ruins.

Artefacts from the wreck were to have taken pride of place in a new maritime museum planned for the giant Old Dutch Ware House filling one section of the fort's walls, which was also damaged in the flood.

In the chaos and distress that followed the 2004 tsunami, it would have been understandable if restoration work towards the museum had been put on hold as homes and lives were rebuilt.

But curiously, the disaster had the opposite effect, triggering rapid rebuilding of the unit and generating fresh impetus for the museum work as well as a spate of new conservation drives within the fort, a Unesco World Heritage site.

Robert Parthesius, head of the maritime archaeology unit at the time, said: 'We lost about 80 per cent of the collection. Luckily ... I received money from all sides. Within two to three weeks, we could start the rebuilding process. They were quite willing to go down that road ... Even though the humanitarian disaster was very big, I could concentrate on a smaller group of people.'

Just three years on, the rehoused unit has set up a field training school in underwater archaeology for experts from across the Asia-Pacific - under a plan agreed at a meeting in Hong Kong in 2003.

With restoration work nearly complete, the Old Dutch Ware House would not look out of place in Amsterdam or Florence. The museum and visitor centre are due to open next year.

Meanwhile, work is under way to restore three bastions of 16th century Portuguese fortifications, two of which sustained damage in the tsunami, and to strengthen the fort's antique Dutch-built sewage system. And 40 historic houses have been done up along traditional Dutch lines by residents under a 51.4 million rupee (HK$3.73 million) Private Houses Conservation Project launched last year.

Saman De Silva, project manager of the Central Cultural Fund, which is co-ordinating the conservation work, said: 'We want to develop the fort as a tourist area to cater for local and foreign tourists. I think we got funds more quickly because of the tsunami, and I think the Dutch government also started to extend its help.'

Virtually all the projects in Galle have been funded by the Netherlands, which agreed with the Sri Lankan government in 2006 to jointly prepare a master plan for bringing tourists back to the island's southern coast. They came up with the idea of a 'Southern Cultural Triangle' involving Galle Fort, coastal forts at nearby Matara and Katuwana and a temple at Kataragama that is visited by pilgrims from the island's three main religious groups.

Including the restoration work in Galle, 16 projects are going ahead, for which the Dutch have provided Euro5.8 million (HK$69.8 million) - on top of more than Euro50 million donated for direct tsunami relief.

Nathalie Kroner, second secretary at the Netherlands embassy in Colombo, says: 'The objective is to link cultural heritage to tourism, creating opportunities for income, employment and sustainable management of cultural heritage. This will ... benefit the local population in the southern region.'

Dr Parthesius, who is director of the Netherlands' Centre for International Heritage Activities, said: 'The policy in the Netherlands is to link culture and development. In some cases it means that you use culture to develop, and an example of that is what we are doing in Galle.

'Quite often in developing countries, they don't have the energy and time to think about their culture because they are too busy with the basics of survival. So we build a layer of people in society who are aware of their identity.

'Now they are sitting in the front seat and we are sitting in the back seat. Of course, we are still handing money over to the driver but they are running the whole show.'

Few world heritage sites elsewhere in Asia have been as fortunate as the old city of Galle. Natural disasters, war, terrorism and rampant development have taken their toll, while some countries lack the resources to mount necessary conservation work.

All 184 governments that have signed up to the World Heritage Convention must contribute funding to Unesco's efforts to conserve world heritage sites. They are encouraged to form partnerships with other countries over sites outside their borders.

But the centre has a budget of just US$600,000 for its regular programmes across Asia, supplemented by cash from the World Heritage Fund and outside sources. It has formal partnerships with just five governments - France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Japan - to provide extra funding and support for particular sites in other countries.

European governments predominate among states that provide assistance for sites abroad, with some, such as Norway, giving help in areas where they have no historic links.

In recent years, however, a handful of Asia-Pacific states have forged links in response to acute conservation needs in developing countries. Japan donated US$1 million towards Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley, which was put on the 'in danger' list after three colossal Buddhist statues were blown up by the Taleban in 2001. New Zealand is helping to clear landmines from the Plain of Jars in Laos, an area with thousands of huge stone jars up to 2,000 years old, for which the Laotian government has applied for world heritage status.

Giovanni Boccardi, chief of the centre's Asia-Pacific unit, said the challenges of protecting sites in Asia's developing countries are greater because of poverty, weak conservation and planning systems, and 'the terrible speed of development'. More developed countries are needed to join partnerships in the region; he would like to see Hong Kong sign up, which would involve consulting Beijing.

An Asia-Pacific fund could also be set up, similar to the African World Heritage Fund formed in 2006 to help African countries to overcome challenges in meeting the requirements of the convention.

Mr Boccardi says it is 'very useful and appropriate' that the Dutch government is helping Sri Lanka strengthen the conservation of Galle and its Dutch heritage.

'Sri Lanka has an extremely advanced school of cultural heritage conservation and a group of committed professionals with long expertise,' he said. 'But in certain countries, there is no legal or institutional framework [for heritage conservation] - or they are not sufficiently developed.

'The challenges are very different ... because there are very different contexts. But each site has its own problems coping with development pressures, and there is always a degree of tension.'