Sun, 18 Jun 2000

On salvage and looting of Indonesia's underwater treasures

By Edi Sedyawati

JAKARTA (JP): The conducting of archeological exploration in Indonesia is often confronted by other interests.

Physical development of land, such as building a new highway, dam or factory, conflicts occasionally with the need to preserve an archaeological site for scientific research. Nevertheless, much has been done in terms of coordination and integrated multisector problem solving in these cases.

A much more perplexing state of affairs concerns the "underwater legacies" of the past. Some authorities outside the archaeological community regard the relics of shipwrecks as sources of wealth with high commercial value. Ventures have been made, illegal and semi-legal, through a lot of companies for commercial gains.

The Association of Indonesian Archaeologists made a declaration at its February 1999 congress to enhance integrated efforts to synchronize development and conservation purposes, including "underwater archaeology".

Capacity building to develop underwater archaeology in the country began with participation in a training program in that field by the Seameo Project for Archaeology and Fine Arts, conducted in Thailand from 1978 to 1984.

Sixteen people were trained, consisting of personnel from both the Directorate for Protection and Conservation of Archaeological and Historical Monuments of the then ministry of education and culture (now the Ministry of National Education) and the National Center for Archaeological Research.

However, the progress in developing capabilities in underwater archaeology has been slow. Part of the reason was a traumatic incident 14 years ago, after a foreign company with diver Michael Hatcher as principal took the contents of a VOC shipwreck in Indonesian waters without appropriate procedures.

A multisector expedition was sent by the government to check on the spot, to identify the remains of the sunken ships, mainly the much talked about Geldermalsen and Flor de la Mar. An Indonesian archaeologist-diver, Santoso Pribadi, found the spot and brought some pieces of ceramic samples on board. Alas, on a second dive he was killed and lost at sea.

A more administrative reason of the slowness is the fact that developing capacities in underwater archaeology needs a great amount of funds, but the budget is limited.

For the cultural sector in general, it means a limitation to implement any new vision and innovative ideas.

However, a small-scale capacity building measure has been taken, which is the training of divers in cooperation with the Indonesian Subaquatic Sport Association.

Adequate equipment is available, but only during training.

The fact is that aside from five scuba diving sets, the archaeological office has no operational implements at its disposal to develop an underwater division. Safety and good documentation need to recourse to the fruits of the latest developments in science and technology. Salvage of shipwrecks should be regarded first of all as saving a historical evidence (thus needs accuracy of handling and documentation), rather than as looting of unguarded treasure.

Legal issues

After the "plunder" incident of 1986, the government issued Presidential Decree No. 43 on Aug. 14, 1989, which appointed a "national committee for the taking up and utilization of treasures from the cargo of wrecked ships". This committee is chaired by the coordinating minister for politics and security, and the education minister as vice chairman.

It authorizes the committee, through the chairman, to issue the permit to take up and utilize the treasures after taking into consideration the opinion of the members, who represent eight ministries (including home affairs, foreign affairs, finance, justice, communications and trade) and the Indonesian armed forces.

It also authorizes the national committee to monitor and inspect all the activities in the field. On Dec. 20, 1989, a technical regulation was duly issued by the head of the committee.

On Aug. 22, 1990, the chairman of the committee issued its own regulation called the "technical regulation to take up and utilize treasures found on land", thus extending its own mandate from the sea to land as well. The wordings of that decree corrupted the name of the committee from the original mentioned in the presidential decree into the "national committee for the taking up and utilization of treasures" omitting the defining words "from the cargo of wrecked ships".

This self-contained expansion of authority logically transgresses that of the scientific archaeological excavation.

Paragraph 11 of that regulation explicitly states that the archaeological aspect is only considered "when it is necessary".

Paragraph 5 point 4 mentions that decisions should only be made in a "meeting", after receiving written recommendations from the relevant offices. In reality, though, meetings have not been conducted. In lieu of that, letters written by the secretary of the committee to the members asking for comments about a proposal "to take up treasures" (both from the sea and on land) have the words" if within two weeks we do not receive any comments, we consider that you are in agreement".

The Directorate General for Culture, through the Directorate for Protection and Conservation and its branch offices in the provinces, always reacts duly by checking the indicators in the field. In most cases, alas, these efforts are futile.

The companies are already operating their salvage cum looting without proper coordination with local authorities, especially the representatives of the education ministry, disregarding any archaeological and national considerations.

This has become the common practice done through the national committee, despite the issuance of Law No. 5 on protected material cultural heritage in 1992.

Law is higher in hierarchy compared to presidential decree. Nevertheless, paragraph 112 of that law, which stated that "anybody is prohibited to search for valuables or cultural heritage of which the owner is unknown, by any means such as digging, diving or carrying, without a permit by the government" has mostly been disregarded by the national committee. Government Regulation No. 10, 1993, issued for the implementation of Law No.5, 1992, stated that the government in this case is represented by the minister in charge of culture (paragraph 1 point 4), which means the education minister today.

Aware of this dualism of authority, and the growing intensity of the "search for treasure" done by the many companies endorsed by the national committee which has tended to become a one-man committee, then education and culture minister Juwono Sudarsono proposed the abolishment of Presidential Decree No. 43 1989.

This proposal was made in a letter to the minister/state secretary on Dec. 1, 1998, but no formal reaction has been made up to now. Verbally, however, the late coordinating minister for politics and security, Soesilo Soedarman, admitted the problem and expressed his wish to transfer the full responsibility for treasure/heritage matters to the minister of education and culture.

The writer is chairwoman of the Indonesian Archaeologists Association and former director general of culture.