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The Tomb raiders strike in Mayaro

Sunday, October 14, 2012
Sunday Guardian Special Report: State of Heritage Conservation
The old Mayaro Post Office with no floor.

With little or no oversight mechanisms in place, it is virtually open season for hunters and hoarders of the heritage of Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean to gather and dispose of as they wish. This, according to LiTTscapes author and heritage educator/facilitator, Dr Kris Rampersad.


Dr Rampersad makes the comments in her blog Demokrissy ( where she has been running a series of articles on the state of heritage conservation. The articles are aligned with publication of her book LiTTscapes–Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago; her launch of LiTTours–literary journeys through the landscapes of fiction, community sensitisation.


“We encountered the evidence of heritage piracy on the inaugural LiTTour from Port-of-Spain through Sangre Grande to Mayaro when we stopped off to view the Ganteaume Tomb in Mayaro,” Rampersad told the Sunday Guardian in an interview. This after readings and discussions with children and villagers in each district.


She writes in Friday’s blog that “tomb raiding ranges from the activities of hobbyists seemingly innocently eager to hoard bits of history so they comb graveyards and other sites to gather bits and pieces from or off tombs, petty thieves looking to earn a quick shilling, to highly organised crime networks trading in black market heritage goods with complicity by individual collectors or even museum dealers participating in a very lucrative heritage trade market.”



The blog posting is entitled “The Tomb Raiders–Return to the Quest for El Dorado.”


According to Rampersad, “That’s the danger we face without adequate laws, with deficient infrastructure, without bilateral agreements and protections, without connected institutions, without proper monitoring, regulations and punishments, without informed co-ordination and without empowered communities.”


She noted that not unlike when Europe first entered the Caribbean in its quest for El Dorado, the region is again attractive to culture and heritage pirates eager to capitalise on our unique cultural assets built from our experience as migrant peoples from five continents connected to local indigenous populations found here.


“With the world re-awakening to the value of culture and heritage and the Caribbean being a repository of histories and heritage of migrant streams from all the continents of the world, the new El Dorado is not just the bullion or traditional objects of value as gold and jewelry, but artefacts that may be believed to fetch high prices in the world market, or become part of heritage collections that may one day be sold on the black market to museums and archives.”



These assets lie underwater, on land, in documents and in the oral memory and traditions we hold, she states.


Illicit siphoning out of such assets and heritage deprive local communities and populations of enjoyment and appreciation of their heritage, as well as creating and generating incomes from legitimate heritage-based industries and activities, Rampersad added.


Dr Rampersad, who delivers training, facilitation and advice to Caribbean countries interested in safeguarding their heritage, noted that it was partly in response to this that UNESCO developed its convoluted sets of conventions related to protection of natural, cultural, built, knowledge and information heritage, assets all aligned to a complex series of processes and procedures and international legal instruments.


She said national actions for heritage have in the large been “short-sighted, piecemeal, often reactive, crisis-oriented, stop-gap responses to immediate situations to avoid embarrassment or deflect from public rage until such rage can be redirected elsewhere.”


She stated that agencies like the National Trust, national museum and like government departments —key frontline institutions in heritage preservation—“have been glaring deficient in their functioning but this has gone without being addressed for years. “They support systems of patronage that keep culture and heritage in a dependency stranglehold so they are unable to find their footing as viable and lucrative, self sustaining economic activity.”


She added, “And if there is little co-ordination or collaboration among them, several of them duplicating each other’s work and jealously guarding turf. For instance, there are about eight public lists or inventories of heritage and several private ones and I understand more in the making, but these need to be brought together for a comprehensive inventory.



If you were to talk with anyone of them, (s)he would also be pointing fingers in several other directions, including other government ministries and departments, who are also pointing at each other. “There is deep distrust and loss of faith in the public institutions charged with heritage conservation.”


Govt preparing list of heritage sites—de Coteau
Minister of Diversity and Social Integration, Clifton de Coteau said the historical sites have to be “listed.” He said, “I am going to be contacting all MPs for the heritage sites in their constituencies. I will be working with the Local Government Minister (Suruj Rambachan). As it stands, the Trust has identified 302 sites. I would like to say there are more.



When we finalise it, I would send it to the attorney general (Anand Ramlogan) and they have to be “listed.” Once we have identified them, we will get them “listed.” When the ambassador of Spain (Fernando de la Serna) was speaking, he identified the fort at the Laventille hills. “It is a lot of work. I don’t know why people were not taking it seriously in the past. It is our treasure.”


Ganteaumes welcome restoration of tombstone
When contacted, descendant/retired businessman Henry Peter Ganteaume said he was supportive of Dr Rampersad’s initiative to salvage his relative’s tombstone. Ganteaume said, “I would not call myself a business magnate, but I am a great, great, great, grandson. I don’t know how many greats.



My grandfather was Henry Pierre. I was saddened naturally to hear about the vandalism. There has been such dereliction of our heritage. Whether it is the Magnificent Seven or beautiful houses and old estate houses in the countryside.  


“And now in my own case, it’s a shame we don’t take care of these things. We live for today and all the facets of our wonderful history are destroyed. Ganteaume said he did get in touch with Dr Rampersad. “If I can add my voice to people working so tirelessly to aid the sense of recognition, I am happy to do so. These are all contributions to our mixed and varied heritage.



And all I can do is give some support. It’s wonderful by publicising this. “We talk about eco tourism. And people don’t take the time and effort to visit. But people pay fortunes to go and visit abroad. What I saw in New Orleans, reminded me of Henry Street and Charlotte Street, Port-of-Spain, and the charming fretwork. Imagine we haven’t saved a block of it.”



What needs to be fixed

Heritage facilitator, Dr Kris Rampersad identifies the following stumbling blocks to heritage preservation in her blog post The Tomb Raiders:

• Inadequate local legislation, deficient local structures and institutions, incompetent monitoring and enforcement authorities all contribute to making this a lucrative activity.
• Historic animosities fostered and entrenched between and among our populations and institutions;
• Heritage institutions with overlapping jurisdictions, duplicate each other’s activities that hold heritage assets in a stranglehold whereby none can adequately perform functions, and none can benefit.
• Suspicion, mistrust, lack of confidence hang over key institutions as bureaucratic government departments, front line institutions charged with guarding such assets as the National Trust and museum.
• An archaic museum model, run on a massa-type structure, borrowed from colonial rule.
• People charged with safeguarding heritage foster a patronage approach and jealously guard their territory in obstructionist stances, when they could be better served through collaboration and cooperation.
• Lack of coordination between systems, processes, listings/inventories and other activities.
• Lack of committed financing and resourcing programmes and mechanisms for conservation activities


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