Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers
Jeff Morgan, 48, is co-founder of the Global Heritage Fund, which seeks to save the earth’s most significant and endangered cultural heritage sites in developing countries and regions, through scientific excellence and community development. I first became acquainted with GHF in the summer of 2008, when Jeff sent me a note after reading in the Boston Globe a piece I had written about Guatemala’s Maya ruin of Tikal. My trip to Tikal made a profound impression on me. It was one of my earliest experiences in visiting a developing country, and I was jarred and saddened by the poverty I saw. I was also puzzled by and incredulous at the dearth of tourists at the site, and the fact that at times I felt like I had its 222 square miles to myself. When I commented as much to my guide Armando, his eyes lit up and he vigorously shook his head up and down in agreement. He was clearly pleased that a visitor appreciated the civilization’s mind-boggling milestones in astronomy, mathematics, architecture, and written language. He was equally gratified that his frustration, too, was understood; that the time, money, and resources of the archeological world have generally focused outside the Americas. (See Travel Articles for Tikal story.)
Fast-forwarding to a couple of weeks ago, I was editing this conversation with Jeff while on visit to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. During my stay, I spent time at the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza, Coba, and Tulum. I had the privilege of being given tutorials by Julian, George, and Froylan, whose pride in their heritage was palpable. My new friend Patricio introduced me to a Maya couple, Victoria and Alberto, who welcomed me into their two-room home; Victoria made tortillas by hand and cooked them over an open fire. I bought some small napkins she had embroidered with the name of her village. Patricio told me that such sales had meant literally a new roof for their home, of the thatched variety. (See Travel Photos.)
Experiences such as these are humbling. It was powerful to witness how fresh paths being cleared to and among the archeological ruins of a once-mighty society can make a real and meaningful difference in someone’s life. At Chichen Itza, Julian told me that as a Maya, he did not believe the last day of that civilization’s calendar being in 2012 means “the end.” Rather, he believes it represents a time of change and transformation, a time of new hope.
Jeff Morgan and the Global Heritage Fund are a part of that change. I hope you enjoy this conversation with him.
Meg: What exactly is a ‘heritage site’ and why are they important?
Jeff: Heritage sites are important for a wide variety of different reasons — a site might represent a masterpiece of human creative genius, or exhibit an important interchange of human values, or bear a unique testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which has disappeared, or be an outstanding example of human interaction with the environment, especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change. Heritage sites are also important for their economic value — many sites where we work will generate annual income over the next 20 years in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and be one of the most important economic assets for a region or nation’s development.
Meg: Can you explain Global Heritage Fund’s mission and how its creation came about?
Jeff: I’ve been traveling since I was about 13. I lived in Bogota, Colombia when I was young. I visited Santa Marta, where I saw extensive poverty with thousands of people living in the dirt outside Baranquilla with little to eat. Little has changed since and it made me realize I should focus on the poorest countries with the largest sites. How do you bring people out of poverty? And at the same time you’ve got amazing heritage sites that are just being decimated. I am especially interested to help those in deep systemic poverty use their own heritage to provide economic and cultural heritage revitalization.
If a person who has a lot of potential ends up strung out on drugs or self-destructs, you cry. That’s what’s happening here. You’ve got the best development opportunity for poor countries sitting right in your hand, and most governments just think ‘oh, heritage, that’s high culture that’s not real human development.’ So, they totally miss the long-term potential and they don’t invest. Ministries of Culture are usually under-funded and have few strong human resources. Development agencies and banks rarely combine the two — heritage conservation and development. It is always a distant priority, despite the major potential to bring hundreds of millions of dollars to a poor country which will enable development, schools, hospitals and roads. Out of all the things I’ve seen in my life, this is the biggest lost opportunity that I’ve ever seen- on a global scale.
When I was in international business development in the tech business, I was often traveling in Asia and lived in Japan for three years. I saw during the past twenty years how almost every historic city was torn down for modern development from Chiangmai in Thailand to Chengdu and Beijing in China.
Around major archaeological and heritage sites , we have people living in dirt-floor, tin-roof shacks, five people in the family in one room, and basically, little future for income growth ahead of them. Most of the international development organizations that are helping those places have really been doing charity work. They’re giving people fish as opposed to helping them learn how to fish and to take advantage of the major heritage sites and their potential.
And right next door, where there’s a big archeological site, you have hundreds or thousands of people who are benefiting from the tourism-related businesses with toilets and running water in their homes, and more income and a better life in terms of education and health. This huge difference was what really got me to think how major archaeological and heritage sites could be developed in a responsible way and really generate a long-term income for very poor people.
Meg: Was there a particular catalyst that moved you to take action?
Jeff: In 2001 I was on Santa Cruz, an island off Santa Barbara, sitting with the head of The Nature Conservancy (California), a guy named Steve McCormick. He said, ‘Jeff, we need more people from the private sector. Why don’t you do something in conservation?’
So I started thinking that day how I could make a personal commitment in the conservation world. I wasn’t a orange gibbon specialist or a marine biologist, but did have a degree from Cornell in City and Regional Planning. I knew I needed to work in the poorest countries, because that is where the real leverage is for philanthropic investment, not where everyone already has a Mercedes and a BMW. Major heritage sites offer a real economic opportunity — what I call a Trillion Dollar Opportunity for poor countries over the next fifty years. So, in 2002 I really decided to dedicate my life to save heritage sites in really poor areas.
More importantly, the planet is losing many of its most unique and one-of-a-kind sites- where there is only one example for an entire civilization like My Son Sanctuary in Vietnam, the country’s only archaeological World Heritage site which represents 2,000+ years of Champa Civilization. While there are hundreds of Roman amphitheatres across the Mediterranean getting funding, unique, one-of-a kind sites are being lost every year. Most of them happened to be in developing countries. If you look at where all the money goes, it goes into churches, mosques, synagogues and Buddhist sites. And then it goes into the Classics — Roman and Greek heritage, amphitheaters, temples and plazas. There’s a lot of money for the Classics. But a great many spectacular ancient sites don’t fit any of those categories. They are ruins and temples from early civilizations which happen today to be in very poor places with little human and financial resources to take care of them.
I had seen over the last decade working that there is a crisis of global scale- we are losing some of our most important heritage and archaeological sites in our generation. In Asia, except for Luang Prabang, Lijiang, Pingyao and a few other examples, we were losing pretty much every intact, historic district. Kathmandu to Chiang Mai has turned into high rise hotels, apartments and strip malls, just like my own California. I kind of got to the point where it was unbearable to go to Asia anymore. Even in Japan if you go to Kyoto it’s just one big love hotel. So it’s sad, you know, to have such a sacred place like Kyoto in one of the world’s richest countries, getting neon-light love hotels on every block. It just shows poor management. And that’s in Japan. That’s a first-world country. So you can imagine what’s happened in Chiang Mai, Thailand which was one of Asia’s most intact sacred temple towns, and is now just high-rise apartments and hotels with a few historic sites in between
At Cornell, I studied city planning and learned about historic preservation from my professors, one of whom is on our board, Michael Tomlan and John Reps, who wrote the book on Historic American Cities. I learned about the U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation and English Heritage helping to preserve historic monuments like Monticello and historic downtowns like Savannah, Georgia that were being lost to box retailers and by-passed by freeways, or lost to neglect and blight. After my experience in California watching one of the most beautiful places on earth become one big El Camino Real with malls, parking lots and industrial complexes with little regard to planning, livability or heritage, I became driven to make a difference.
How do we help to saves the places that are left? Help them manage their UNESCO World Heritage designation which suddenly brings millions of visitors? Help them improve site management, train the leadership in the towns or sites?
Dr. Ian Hodder had just come to Stanford from Cambridge University and was asked to establish the Stanford Archaeology Center (SAC). He is now on page one of every archeology textbook for his work in Catalhoyuk — the oldest known city in the world — 9,000 years old in central Anatolia Turkey, near Konya. He is highly respected theoretically as an archeologist, as an author, and also as a leader in the movement towards community-based conservation and responsible site development.
We started talking about what we could do together and he brought all of his knowledge from 20+ years in the field and his ethics and methods which helped us develop Preservation by Design– our method and process. He helped us set up the GHF Senior Advisory Board, and I brought the business and management experience.