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Op-Ed

Heritage, Democracy and Development in Libya

William Y. Brown

In the wake of Muammar el-Gaddafi’s fall, Libya’s major cities are flooded with arms and the detritus of war, tribal divisions are in display, and the new Interim Transitional National Council is uncertain in authority, direction, and voice. Big ideas for democracy have been conceived with support from the West, but they will not flourish unless Libyans can find and embrace unity and not discord. Cultural and natural heritage offer a path for a shared history. Heritage is a mosaic of lives and ecologies that Libya’s people can prosper from if given the chance.

Libya’s heritage is deep and wide. Five cultural World Heritage Sites have been inscribed, ranging from 12,000 year old rock art of Tadrart Acacus, the ancient Punic, Greek and Roman settlements of Sabratha, Cyrene, and Leptis Magna, and the oasis settlement of Ghadames. The coastline is chock with sunken ships from antiquity and submerged stone settlements. On land, the Berbers, or “free men” of Northern Africa with their tribes, music, food, architecture, and other marks of culture, including languages are still there, co-existing with the desert and Arab society.

Libya’s natural heritage is also arresting. The Al Jabal Al Akhdar (Green Mountain) plateau in the northeast, including the Wadi Al-Kouf natural area, has a distinct moist ecology, and holds the majority of Libya’s plant species. Inland, desert oases and natural lakes concentrate animal and plant life, where migrating birds stop to drink, feed, and rest. Animals including oryx and gazelle inhabit the interior Zellaf dunes deep in the Sahara. On the Mediterranean, corals reefs, sea bird colonies, and nesting sea turtles thrive between war-torn cities. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has identified 24 sites on the Libyan coast that warrant special protection due to their ecological significance.

Libya’s museums give voice to its culture and nature. The National Jamahiriya Museum in Tripoli holds thousands of cultural artifacts and natural history specimens collected across the country. Cyrene, Leptis Magna, Sabratha, and Ghadames keep collections of their own patrimony, while Benghazi and other cities have museums of both culture and nature. The museums that channel cultural sites and key natural areas can catalyze a renaissance of Libyan heritage. They protect objects of deep patrimony and rarity in nature and support scholarship that divines the past and illuminates the present. They embrace and feed public hunger for education, beauty, and adventure, and they inculcate public appreciation and pride in heritage promoting demand for its protection and integration into current life. Museums are also powerful engines for tourism and economic development. Tourism jumped after international sanctions were lifted from Libya in 2003 — Libya’s tourism board reported that visits increased from 125,000 in 2006 and 760,000 in 2008, with average tourist spending doubling from 60 to 120 Euros.

Despite these promising figures, Libya has to date seen only a small percent of the visits made to neighboring Egypt, where the monuments at Giza typically see some 3 million people a year and the Egyptian Museum sees 1.5 million. No cultural sites or museums in Libya are remotely close, and Libya’s important natural areas receive little international notice and few visits. Furthermore, Libya’s heritage is neglected. Even its World Heritage Sites are decaying, not from the recent conflict but from the harsh environment and continuing new human settlement. Structures in Cyrene and Leptis Magna are falling apart as wind, sand and salt erode friable limestone, while Roman stones are regularly turned into the walls of modern buildings. Natural resources are threatened by overexploitation, habitat degradation from settlement, land-use, and pollution. Libya’s museums are challenged too. The Benghazi museum was looted of its “Treasure” including 7,000 antique coins, and four amphoras were taken from the Apollonia Museum, 200 kilometers east of Benghazi. Immediate action is needed to provide physical security for movable objects and to recover items recently stolen. Mostly, however, the problem is a lack of planning, funding and management that preceded and is unrelated to the Arab Spring.

For the long-term, Libya needs to remake its heritage laws and agencies, and that begins with a discussion of mission. Diverse stakeholders within Libya should be involved as well as international donors and experts.[1] Libya’s heritage mission should embrace the full spectrum of values and services that field sites and museums can provide. Heritage includes culture and nature, and not just what comes from Libya’s land but also the sea’s sunken ships, submerged settlements, and marine ecosystems. Heritage also includes the cultures of Libya’s different peoples, including prehistoric societies, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans of the past, and the Berbers and others whose cultures reach back in time and continue today. The five currently inscribed World Heritage Sites are just a taste of Libya’s cultural history, and more should be added.

A fundamental, critical step forward is to include in the permanent constitution of Libya a provision committing the government to conservation, study, and beneficial public use of Libya’s cultural and natural heritage. A draft of the permanent constitution is currently due for consideration by late 2012. The process for developing that document and some interim principles were mandated by Libya’s Interim Transitional National Council (TNC) in its Constitutional Declaration (Declaration) approved on August 3, 2011. The Declaration is to be the “basis of rule” until a permanent constitution is ratified in a plebiscite and includes a commitment to heritage that is heading in the right direction, although understandably does not go all the way. The Declaration establishes Islam as the state religion and Islamic jurisprudence, or Shariah, as the “principle source of legislation”, but it commits to freedom in practice of “religious rituals.” Arabic is the official language, but the Declaration provides that “[t]he State shall guarantee the cultural rights for all components of the Libyan society and its languages shall be deemed national ones.” The Declaration also specifies freedoms to be “guaranteed by the State in accordance with law” including freedom of “opinion for individuals and groups, freedom of scientific research, freedom of communication, liberty of the press, printing, publication and mass media . . .”

These provisions of the Declaration, if carried into the permanent constitution, bode well in protecting freedom of expression for Libya’s different cultures, religions and languages. What remains is a commitment to keeping heritage – protecting, studying, and finding beneficial public uses for both culture and natural history.

In conjunction with a constitutional mandate, Libya should review and strengthen its subordinate legal authorities and governance structures for cultural and natural heritage. A Ministry of Heritage should be created, responsible for overall leadership for cultural sites, natural areas, and museums. Before the fall of the Gaddafi regime, cultural heritage was overseen by the Department of Antiquities, which coordinated with local municipal and agricultural authorities who largely determined what happened at heritage sites. Natural heritage was overseen by the Environment General Authority, which similarly played a limited hand in decisions in the field. Whether these institutions will continue remains to be seen, although many of the individuals employed by the agencies can be expected to remain at the task.

Libya’s inchoate government is an opportunity as well as a challenge to reform, with intransient bureaucracies missing in action. Libya could avoid some mistakes made by other nations. The United States, for example, has a strong system of national parks, including natural and cultural sites maintained by its National Park Service, yet U.S. national wildlife refuges and national forests are managed by other agencies, also competent but creating inefficiency and increased cost in the separation. Museums in the United States are largely and unfortunately an after-thought in landscape management of natural and cultural heritage. Other developed nations have similar suboptimal arrangements cobbled together through histories of opportunities, personalities, and shifting public attitudes. With discipline, Libya could avoid a duplicative and fragmented governance structure for heritage. However, one step taken in developed nations that has proved important is to earmark funding for museums and land preservation efforts with fees on income or activities. For example, the Land and Water Conservation Fund in the United States was established for acquisition of important public lands and is funded by companies engaged in offshore oil and gas activity. Libya might consider such a heritage fee levied on its own oil and gas production.

Several specific steps in the near-term would help to implement a heritage mandate. A national heritage website should be established. The site could identify cultural sites, natural areas, and museums, including information on natural resources, collections, research and public programs. The posted items on the site should be kept simple and not require more than staff can realistically provide, while providing flexibility for more information. Non-governmental Wikipedia and Facebook pages should be established too. Wikipedia allows anyone to add and edit information. There is risk of inaccuracy in public editing, as for Wikipedia in general, but that is more than balanced by having an avenue for information that will not depend entirely on efficient functioning of what is now a government in the making. A Facebook page would be a place for individual public comment and social networking.

Additionally, a public awareness campaign should be launched for heritage. Those long-engaged in Libya lament the lack of public appreciation for heritage. A poll should be undertaken to measure current awareness and support, and a campaign should follow. The objectives would be for Libyans to value heritage and its long-term protection, to seek education about it for themselves and their children, to support government policies and funding for heritage, and to do no harm themselves to heritage sites. An independent firm should be engaged competitively to lead the campaign, after demonstrating sophistication and experience with successful efforts in related circumstances and ability to connect with the Libyan people.

Heritage tourism should be advanced. Libya’s sites and museums have the potential to draw visitors and money just as do the attractions of neighboring Egypt. But the repressive Gaddafi regime, sanctions applied by other nations, and recent turmoil have enjoined development of that market. International governmental support is a critical complement to domestic tourism funding, and already underway through Italy, Japan, Norway, and other countries, as well as United Nations agencies and other international organizations. The private sector should be involved from the beginning, since its investment may determine whether tourism succeeds or not. Firms should be invited to make proposals that government donors can consider leveraging with public funds or regulating as needed to assure sustainability. Government and non-profit enterprises are often overly optimistic about income and expense. The private sector brings “skin” and experience to the deal. Government can always decline or condition what’s proposed.

Individual strategic plans should be developed and implemented for Libya’s more significant museums, cultural sites, and natural areas. These should be approached as sophisticated enterprises on their own with physical facilities to build and maintain, collections to curate and conserve, ecologies to protect, researchers to support, and diverse public programs and services to provide for foreign tourists and local communities. They require adequate governance, finance, administration, and fundraising, whose effectiveness often determines whether they succeed or fail. Each enterprise needs its own plan, with a mission and objectives customized to its place in heritage, and with actions, timelines, costs, and steps to secure needed funding. Best practices should be described and adopted for conservation, research, and public services such as education, exhibits, tourism, and sustainable use. Priorities include training and equipping staff, registering movable collection items, developing maps using GPS and GIS, and conserving crumbling monuments. Plan implementation should be reviewed annually, and management performance should be reviewed and rewarded or redirected based on success. A year or more will be required to develop most plans, but discussions have value from the day they begin.

Libya should also invest in formal education on heritage. Its people have been isolated by decades of repressive and eccentric rule. Now they have the opportunity to learn about themselves. International student exchange and language training should be included for perspective. Other cultures give perspective on one’s own, and nothing defines a culture more than language.

Libya is at a crossroad. It might dissemble into warring factions and economic collapse or it might become a nation with freedom and a good life for its people. Libya’s roots and economic future are in its culture and the natural world, and it should embrace that heritage now to prosper.


[1] The international organizations involved should include, at a minimum, UNESCO, World Bank, International Council of Museums (ICOM), International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

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