Indonesia Can't Stop Its Illegal Treasure Hunters

The illegal antiquities trade is robbing the country of millions of dollars and no one seems to have a plan to stop it.

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Nov 21 2017, 8:15am

Suhendra Lie/ Wikimedia Commons

Indonesia's lost treasures keep going missing. Conservations say that a flood of illegal treasure hunters are digging up artifacts in rice paddies in the Central Java district of Sukoharjo—a region about 62 kilometers outside Yogyakarta—and selling the valuable items on the black market.

Local officials declared a site in Sukoharjo's Joho village a conservation zone three years ago after evidence of an ancient Buddhist temple was discovered nearby. But the classification has only increased the appetite of looters who are willing to pay local farmers as much as Rp 3 million ($222 USD) a day for the right to dig for buried treasures under the cover of darkness.

"We haven't calculated it, but if this has been happening since the 1990s, then we have lost so much money," Darno, the head of the local culture and heritage foundation, told VICE. "The government doesn't seem to realize the potential of historical sites."

The money is a vital windfall for the village's rice farmers, who would typically make nothing off their paddies during the dry season. But it's also proven to be a difficult crime to prosecute. And with little risk of being caught there are few reasons for farmers in Joho village to not offer their fields up to cashed-up treasure hunters.

"I know nothing about the heritage," one farmer, a man named Mariman, told the Jakarta Post. "Someone says they want to rent my field... I just allow them."

The antiquities vanish into a murky black market worth, worldwide, an estimated $1.6 billion USD annually, according to the think-tank Global Financial Integrity. Only 10 percent of these stolen cultural artifacts are recovered by authorities, Rosinta Hutauruk, the spokesperson for UNESCO's Indonesia office, told VICE.

"The illicit trade in cultural objects continues to increase because there's stable demand," she said. "This is also due to inconsistent law and weak border policies."

The looting in Joho village is just the latest in a long list of antiquities to disappear from Indonesia. In the 1960s, local residents in a village on the outskirts of Cirebon, West Java, discovered 80 sculptures dating back to before 400 BC. The sculptures were reportedly from an ancient Hindu kingdom that once ruled parts of West Java. But since the discovery, at least 55 of them have gone missing without a trace.

It's a similar story in Lamongan and Pacitan, in East Java, where historically significant sites have been discovered, then abandoned, and under the sea, where scuba diving scavengers made off Rp 4.2 billion ($310,490 USD) in Chinese ceramics from a single shipwreck.

The situation is so bad that even artifacts locked away inside of museums have gone missing. Nearly 9,000 priceless historical artifacts had vanished from Indonesian museums by 2010, according to reports in local media. A few year later, four golden pieces from the Mataram empire vanished from a museum in Central Java.

These antiquities typically pass through multiple sellers, crossing international borders before then end up in the hands of wealthy private collectors and museums. The Archeological Institute of America estimates that as much as 90 percent of the artifacts sold on the legal market don't have any paperwork listing where, and how, they were discovered.

Add in the fact that the black market for stolen antiquities is also full of forgeries and it's easy to see how difficult it is to track down missing artifacts like those that vanished from rice paddies in Joho village. And even these counterfeit antiquities pose a serious threat to the world's heritage, explained Edouard Planche, UNESCO program specialist, in an email to VICE.

"You also have to take into consideration the importance of counterfeited objects in the economic impact of the illegal activities related to cultural heritage," Planche told VICE. "If they do not represent a direct threat to cultural heritage, their presence on the market makes it more difficult to find the real cultural goods which are circulating all over the world."

So once Indonesia's historical artifacts go missing, they may be lost forever. Or to put it simply, the country's history, is, well... history.

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