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World Bank cracks down on cultural damage

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Tucson

The World Bank is close to adopting a rigorous new policy that aims to safeguard archaeological and anthropological sites that could be affected by its development projects.

A policy drafted by bank officials calls for early assessment of cultural heritage resources in areas to be developed, and requires the borrowing nation to address the need to preserve physical resources. It also provides for emergency measures to conserve valuable sites.

Within a month, the board of the bank — one of the world's main backers of development projects — is expected to vote on the draft, which was agreed after three years of consultation with scientists and other interested parties.

Bank officials also hope that its new stance will prompt other agencies that fund development projects to embrace stronger policies to protect cultural heritage.

“The policy is potentially revolutionary,” says Steven Brandt, a University of Florida archaeological anthropologist who sits on the bank's eight-person scientific advisory panel. “The bank is really sincere about this,” he says.

Researchers hope the policy will also lead to training and placement of archaeologists and anthropologists in the countries where development projects are going forward. Many poor nations, especially in Africa, have few such scientists of their own.

Time trial: archaeologists at Gilgel Gibe, Ethiopia, are racing to survey the site before a dam is built. Credit: GILGEL GIBE ARCHAEOLOGICAL PROJECT

But while the World Bank moves to adopt its new policy, researchers at last month's biennial meeting of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists in Tucson, Arizona, reported that significant problems persist with development projects now in progress.

In Ethiopia, for instance, Brandt says that scientists and volunteers are rushing to complete a last-minute cultural heritage assessment of an area near Jimma — where a reservoir is soon to be filled as part of the $300-million Gilgel Gibe hydroelectric dam project, funded by the World Bank and the European Union (EU).

Brandt says that EU-funded roads for the project have been bulldozed through ancient cemeteries, infuriating local people and scientists. EU and bank officials declined to comment.

Scientists have only been able to muster about $200,000 for surveys of the reservoir and surrounding area in southwest Ethiopia, according to Brandt. “It has been a real scramble and a nightmare,” he says.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/417577a

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