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Colombia’s Battle to Repatriate its Archaeological Heritage


Colombia Archaeological Heritage
Kogi masks repatriated from Germany to Colombia (During the current government term, the country has managed to bring back at least 560 pre-Columbian artifacts). Credit: Presidency of Colombia

Colombia is immersed in an tireless campaign to recover its archaeological legacy, seeking to repatriate pre-Columbian pieces that have mostly been illegally diverted to various international destinations. During the current government term, the country has managed to bring back at least 560 pre-Columbian artifacts in more than 30 missions abroad, using the presidential plane. Although this effort has been criticized as costly and unnecessary by the opposition, the government defends its significance in terms of cultural preservation.

The collaboration between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH) has facilitated the return of these pieces from countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Spain, Germany, and Mexico. In October, for example, the diplomatic ship Gloria brought back 12 archaeological pieces from Costa Rica to Cartagena, being one of the most recent events.

Major difference to the previous government

This commitment contrasts notably with previous management, where only 18 pieces were repatriated in a span of four years. The current initiative seeks to rectify the looting that occurred in a period when legislation on archaeological trafficking in Colombia was not clearly defined. It was only in 1997 that Colombian law established the state as the legitimate owner of the national archaeological heritage.

Despite these advances, the fight against the illicit trafficking of these pieces has not been a priority in a country marked by half a century of armed conflict. While the proposed budget for ICANH in 2024 is around $2.3 million, the funds allocated to defense and the police exceed that figure by almost 600 times.

Success in government management

Juan Pablo Ospina, coordinator of the anthropology group at ICANH, highlights the “successful” nature of repatriations under the current government, emphasizing the availability of the presidential plane to safely bring the pieces on official trips.

However, despite these achievements, Colombia continues to face challenges in containing illegal trafficking and repatriating its archaeological treasures. Although the recent increase in the number of repatriations is a positive step, the country must persist in strengthening its efforts to safeguard and protect its valuable archaeological heritage. The battle to repatriate these pieces is a crucial part of the mission to preserve Colombia’s rich history and culture.

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