Ever since Nepal first opened up to visitors in the 1950s, many people have been stunned by its rich cultural and natural heritage. Yet this has also made these resources the victims of thefts, poaching, looting, and trafficking.
From medicinal plants and animal products to sacred statues, many of Nepal’s resources have perished into foreign hands. As a result, museums and other private and public collections abroad hold many of the most beautiful examples of Nepal’s diverse material culture. But these cultural objects were often illegally or unethically acquired: Nepal has had strict legislation in place to prevent looting and illegal export of its cultural objects since its 1956 Ancient Monument Preservation Act. Unfortunately, museum visitors and others who get to observe, learn and benefit from these cultural objects rarely ask how they have come to be in these collections; if their communities of origin have access to them and agree with how they are handled and displayed; and if a museum is the best place for these objects.
During the past few years, awareness of this exploitative process has grown among Nepalis, particularly the younger generations. Civil activism, using social media as a tool for outreach, has come to play a key role in returning these foreign-held Nepali cultural objects to their communities of origin. Anonymous social media initiatives ‘Lost Arts of Nepal’ and NGO ‘Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign’ have made great progress in identifying looted Nepali cultural objects held abroad and making a case for their return. I had the privilege to work on several of these cases, and the positive impact that the return of a cultural object has on a community is thoroughly invigorating and clearly impactful.
It was not until I traveled outside of the Kathmandu Valley that I realized the full extent of the consequences of the demand for beautiful cultural objects. The art market has put a price on the invaluable. When I traveled to Dolpa for the first time, I was struck by its stunning natural and cultural beauty. The rugged landscape provides the backdrop for the amazing cultural expressions of Dolpopa (people from Dolpa). The gonpa and stupas that were scattered across the landscape, and the traditions and rituals that surrounded them, were such a privilege to experience. But what struck me most was the importance of community, of taking care of each other and your surroundings. At the same time, I also saw how quickly things are changing for the Dolpopa, and how they are forced to modernize. And how their needs and priorities, their voices, are underrepresented in the rest of Nepal.
Dolpa’s cultural and natural heritages have inspired many outsiders. But this means that Dolpa’s cultural objects have been and continue to be looted. This is particularly difficult to prevent because of the remoteness and isolation of this Himalayan region. There was no gonpa or stupa I visited in Upper or Lower Dolpa that did not have one or more incidents of theft. Talking about this is painful, but necessary to work towards solutions. Our recent storybook aims to stimulate talking about this problem of looting and trafficking of cultural objects from an early age within Dolpa communities to inspire increased custodianship and protection. We wanted the book to be as representative as possible of Dolpa’s life, to capture the splendor of Dolpa’s culture and nature. However, much more should be done in order to amplify Dolpopa’s voices and assist in the protection of cultural heritage outside of the Kathmandu Valley.
Dolpa culture is continuously evolving and very worthy of our admiration and protection. We can change the mindset of our present and future generations when it comes to supporting local communities like Dolpa in the creation, protection, and repatriation of their culture. Many communities around the world have been robbed of their cultural heritage, and we all have a responsibility to work as hard as we can to change this: to stop the demand for looted cultural objects and instead work towards sustainable, equitable solutions that foreground restorative justice.
Dr. Smith is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Glasgow (Scotland). Her research focuses on the looting and trafficking of cultural and natural resources, primarily in Asia. She just launched a trilingual storybook for children titled ‘Pema and the Stolen Statue from Dolpa, which will be distributed for free to all Dolpa schools and is available via donation for those outside Dolpa. For more information, see www.stolenstatues.com.