Journal Issue

Management of Cultural Property in Bank Projects

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
March 1988
  • ShareShare
Show Summary Details

Robert Goodland

Cultural property is the term used by the United Nations to denote sites of archeological (prehistoric), paleontological, historical, religious, and unique natural value. The ability of today’s generation to destroy cultural property is without precedent. Exponential population growth, coupled with powerful technologies and industrialization, is causing a serious cultural crisis, akin to the crisis of vanishing and endangered species. Around the world, irreplaceable cultural sites are damaged daily. With every destroyed site, future generations lose an opportunity to be enriched by their cultural history.

The conservation of cultural property cannot always be given absolute priority, but much current destruction is unnecessary. With careful planning and cooperation, economic progress need not be at odds with the preservation of cultural heritage. Indeed, it can be forcefully argued that the preservation of cultural property is beneficial and necessary to progress.

Ironically, the most common source of damage and loss is the construction of large public works designed to improve the quality of life. These include dams and reservoirs, large irrigation systems or other agricultural works, and transport corridors (highways, airports, railroads). Other important causes are drilling, mining, and urban development. Many of these large-scale development projects are financed and planned with the help of the international development community. Thus the agencies and institutions that finance and execute projects must consider the issues and values associated with cultural property. To give these issues proper cognizance, agencies must acquire the necessary technical, legal, and institutional information. Most bilateral and multilateral international development agencies have yet to do so.

Most developing countries, for their part, have a voluminous body of national legislation for preserving cultural property, but they lack the well-defined policies and procedures, as well as the institutional capacity, needed to put the laws into effective action. Plans for new developments are often allowed to proceed to the point of no return before the likely effects on cultural property are considered.

For more information, see Robert Goodland and Maryla Webb, The Management of Cultural Property in World Bank Assisted Projects, World Bank Technical Paper No. 62, available from the Publication Sales Unit, World Bank, Washington, DC 20433.

Importance of preservation

After a decade of experience in this field, in September 1986 the Bank adopted an official general policy on the management of cultural property in the development projects it helps to finance. This policy is based on the premise that economic development should preserve and encourage the study of cultural property, for five main reasons. First, the loss or degradation of sites comprising a country’s cultural heritage is irreversible, and represents not only a diminution of national patrimony but also a loss for humanity. Second, a people’s knowledge and understanding of their culture and heritage enriches their lives and can help them to manage contemporary problems more successfully. Third, each site has its own intrinsic value in the scientific study of the nature and development of the earth, its life, and civilization. Fourth, cultural properties can have significant benefits for a nation’s tourism industry. Fifth, the preservation and study of cultural property can be useful in the design of present and future development projects. In Sri Lanka, for example, study of the thousand-year old irrigation systems was a great help in preventing technical errors in the design of the modern system.

The policy also recognizes that the consideration of cultural property need not delay or unduly complicate development projects. With proper planning, project supervisors and contractors can consider cultural property early in project design and maintain close contact with the appropriate authorities and experts.

Bank policy

The Bank’s policy states that the Bank will help to preserve cultural property and seek to avoid its elimination. Specifically,

• The Bank normally declines to finance projects that will significantly damage nonreplicable cultural property, and will assist only those projects that are sited or designed so as to prevent such damage.

• The Bank will help to protect and enhance cultural property encountered in the projects it helps to finance, rather than leaving that protection to chance. Most of the projects with components for the protection of cultural property should include the training and strengthening of the borrower country’s institutions concerned with cultural property.

• Deviations from this policy may be justified only where the expected project benefits are great while the loss of or damage to cultural property is judged by competent authorities to be unavoidable, minor, or otherwise acceptable. The policy also states that a place of great spiritual or cultural value to a tribal or traditional society should be treated with the same respect accorded sites of significance to a dominant or world religion.

• The policy on cultural property pertains to any project in which the Bank is involved, irrespective of whether the Bank is itself financing the part of the project that may affect cultural property. The policy states that in considering a development activity that will directly affect a valuable and immovable cultural property, every effort should be made to relocate the project or to pursue other avenues for solving the development need. If the site must be incorporated in the development scheme, this should be done in a way that maintains at least a substantial part of its valued qualities.

The preservation of cultural property may require the redesign or relocation of the facilities to be constructed. For example, Yugoslavia’s Visegrad Dam was constructed 2.1 kilometers upstream of the site originally planned, so as to save a 16th century bridge from destruction; similarly, India’s Omkareswar dam was built half a kilometer upstream of its originally planned site, in order to avoid flooding an important tenth century shrine.

Thus in some cases the project is best relocated so that sites and structures can be preserved, studied, and restored intact in situ. In other cases, the value of the cultural property may not be inherent in the property itself but in some movable, manmade structure or in the information that can be gained from study of the site. Some structures can be moved, preserved, studied, and restored on alternative sites. For example, several shrines in the Indian states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh will be relocated to save them from inundation by the Narmada Irrigation and Hydropower Project. Certain sites can be developed after archeological study and excavation, without loss to the cultural patrimony (see box).


The management of a country’s cultural property is the responsibility of its government. Within the Bank, regional operations staff are responsible for raising cultural property issues with borrower governments at the earliest stages of project identification, as well as for informing them of Bank policy. The responsibility for implementing cultural property projects or components rests largely with regional operations staff, including the Environment Division within each region, with advice and operational support provided by the Environment Department of the Bank’s central staff.

The Bank’s procedural guidelines for the survey, salvage, excavation, or preservation of an archeological site or culturally significant area are simple:

Safeguarding cultural sites

Kenya: Kiambere Hydroelectric Power Project: This project, which has a total cost of $470 million and is now being implemented, is constructing two dams and an underground powerhouse. The archeological survey conducted before the construction phase uncovered at least five important sites that represent a previously unsuspected aspect of Neolithic culture in East Africa. Archeological salvage was proposed for four sites which would be inundated. Also in the project area were numerous traditional sites and shrines which were strongly valued by local people. Each of the sites of importance is to be protected to ensure continued access by local people.

Turkey: South Antalya Tourism. This project, completed late in 1985 for a cost of $46 million, constructed infrastructure for the tourist industry in an area of Turkey that contains some of the oldest cities of Western civilization. The cultural property component of the project (7 percent of the project’s total cost) included site clearance, excavations, road access, the construction of a small visitors’ center, and the protection and development of the area as an archeological site. The work was supervised by the General Directorate of Ancient Monuments and Museums of the Turkish Ministry of Culture.

Brazil: Recife Metropolitan Region Development. This $390 million project is improving Recife’s infrastructure and services and helping to strengthen the city’s planning and management. The project includes a cultural property component of $5 million for an archeological study and the preparation of an integrated land plan for the island of Itamaraca, with its sixteenth century church; the upgrading of transport infrastructure for access to the beach and monuments, construction of camping facilities, and the restoration of historical churches and convents.

• never destroy before a professional survey is done;

• always survey, even if it is thought that nothing of cultural significance is present;

• treat every cultural site and artifact as a finite resource that can never be replaced;

• report all cultural discoveries to the responsible authorities;

• never dig an archeological site or attempt to rehabilitate or preserve an important historical building or religious shrine without professional assistance.

Project components

The main types of project components that have featured in the Bank’s decade of experience with cultural property concerns are as follows.

Archeological or paleontological study or salvage. When it is impossible to locate a development project away from a cultural property site, the project should be phased to allow time for salvage or rescue possibilities to be investigated, planned, and implemented.

Such a salvage or rescue program should be closely coordinated with the timing of implementation of the economic development project, to enable the scientific work to be completed before the physical alteration of a site begins.

Restoration and preservation of historical or religious buildings. Even when the preservation of cultural property does not appear to benefit the economy (as it would in a tourism project, for example), it will still be desirable if an important part of the national or international patrimony would otherwise be lost.

Preservation of naturally unique sites. Since the preservation of this type of cultural property differs little in practice from the preservation of natural areas or wildlands in general, the Bank’s efforts here follow the guidelines and procedures outlined in Wildlands: Their Protection and Management in Economic Development, World Bank, 1987.

Training and institution building. Many Bank member countries have only limited expertise in the technical or legal aspects of preserving cultural property. Relevant government agencies, if they exist, are often inadequately funded, trained, or staffed to deal with the needs for preservation, maintenance, and study of cultural property. Countries whose development projects continually encounter major archeological phenomena may be well advised to create an Office of Archeology within the implementing ministries (e.g., of Civil Works or Highways). Failing that, Bank support to a university archaeology department may be very useful.


Culturally significant areas and important archeological sites are found all over the world. Clearly, it is impossible to preserve every area or structure or to recover, document, and maintain detailed information on every archeological find. Nevertheless, the Bank’s policy guidelines, combined with its joint work with host countries to preserve their cultural resources, should allow for the proper treatment and salvage of a significant number of the cultural sites encountered in future Bank projects.

Other Resources Citing This Publication