Haitian officials say historical buildings must be saved, not razed in post-quake rebuilding

By Angela Charlton, AP
Monday, February 15, 2010

Official: Save, don’t bulldoze, Haiti’s heritage

PARIS — Haiti’s historical heritage risks being bulldozed in the push to rebuild towns and cities flattened by last month’s earthquake, a leading cultural official warned Monday.

“There is a temptation to demolish everything. When the bulldozers come, it’s fatal,” Daniel Elie, director of Haiti’s governmental Institute for the Preservation of National Heritage, told The Associated Press at the Paris headquarters of the U.N. cultural agency.

Keeping survivors alive and building solid shelter for the 1.2 million made homeless by the Jan. 12 quake are the most immediate priorities. But U.N. officials say preserving the country’s churches, artwork and mementos from its slave revolt will be crucial for Haitians’ long-term emotional recovery.

Cathedrals and other buildings dating to the 17th century were among those damaged, some reduced to their foundations or a lone crumbling wall. In that state, Elie said, their cultural value isn’t obvious to demolition teams sent to raze neighborhoods, he said.

His agency is compiling lists of buildings that should be protected to send around to other government agencies.

Despite the country’s current administrative disarray, “We must make everyone, everywhere sensitive to this,” he said.

Elie is joining Haiti’s culture and communications minister, Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, and UNESCO officials for talks this week to determine the most urgent needs for restoring damaged historical and cultural sites.

Irina Bokova, director of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said the agency has contacted “quite a few donors who have expressed their availability to finance” restoration projects. She would not name them but said it could involve European governments or private donors.

Elie said “the priority of priorities” is restoring the historical center of Jacmel, a 17th- century coastal town once home to wealthy coffee merchants, with a turquoise bay and a serene reputation that attracted tourists and expatriates. About three-quarters of the homes in Jacmel’s downtown were damaged.

“The historical center is the basis of tourism development” as the country tries to recover some semblance of a tourism sector, he said. Haiti wants UNESCO to make Jacmel a World Heritage site.

Lassegue argued that Haitians and their international backers must respect history and culture as they rebuild the nation. “Heritage is so closely linked to national identity,” she said.

UNESCO is also pushing for a ban on international trade in Haitian cultural treasures to prevent pillaging of the nation’s museums in the aftermath of the quake, and international security forces to protect cultural sites.

In one example of global efforts to protect Haitian artworks, French restoration experts will repair an 1822 painting found in the rubble of the Caribbean country’s presidential palace. French firefighters discovered the damaged, ripped painting.

The painting, “Serment des ancetres” (Oath of the Ancestors), by Guillaume Guillon Lethiere, depicts a meeting between two of the fathers of Haitian independence. Haiti won its independence in an 1804 slave revolt against France, defeating Napoleon’s forces.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is to travel to Haiti on Wednesday — the first ever trip by a French leader to the country.

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