Natural Disasters and Their Impact on Looting and Destruction of Cultural Heritage

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20150218cnsto0015 [haiti quake] (1)

Natural disasters strike worldwide and can threaten a country’s art, artifacts, and cultural heritage. Earthquakes, wildfires, landslides, hurricanes, and floods are just some examples of natural disasters. A country’s geographical location and geological make-up, are just some of the factors that contribute to whether a natural disaster will strike. They come without warning or with very little warning and can cause irreplaceable damage and destruction to art, artifacts, and cultural heritage.

One of the dangers of a natural disaster is sometimes cultural art, artifacts, and heritage objects become exposed. They could be transported to areas where people have immediate access to them or become easily obtainable which causes looting of these objects.

This essay will discuss how natural disasters cause destruction and looting of art, artifacts, and cultural heritage artifacts and what is done after a natural disaster to prevent looting and what the world response is to prevent looting and destruction.


The term cultural heritage” is generally understood to describe objects inherited from past generations that relate to a society’s cultural development. Cultural Heritage is an expression of the ways of living developed by a community and passed on from generation to generation, including customs, practices, places, objects, artistic expressions and values.

It includes monuments groups of buildings and sites which are of outstanding universal value from the point of history, art and science.   It can refer to material assets both fixed and movable, customs and traditions of a country which have special value and strengthen national identity.

Experts agree that antiquities are susceptible to looting since artifacts are very valuable. They trace the evolution of people and can be easily liquidated by selling them to museums, auction houses and private collectors. Often times after natural disasters, people are in their most vulnerable state as it is a time of emergency and money and other resources are scarce.

Climate change along with dry periods can create fires. Important monuments and artifacts continue to be destroyed due to fires. Fires can be started by arson, lightning, short circuits, human error or drought. Fires can cause losses of major archives, collections, or artifacts, loss of major historical buildings and conflagrations can cause loss of historic towns.

In 1812, Moscow experienced a conflagration that lasted three days. In addition to burning 75% of the city, 122 churches and the source manuscript for “Tale of Igor’s Campaign” were also destroyed.

One example where fires have led to looting is in Lakeport, California. In 2012, California was experiencing a four-year drought that caused wildfires to spread. In Lake County, wildfires swept through the state’s dry forests. As a result, water levels in Lakeport dropped which caused the exposing of prehistoric Native American artifacts. Human artifacts in this region of California date back more than 14,000 years when humans settled around what is to be believed as the oldest lake in North America.

Looters began finding obsidian spear points. The Lake County Sheriff’s Department was the law enforcement agency responsible for responding to looting. They stated in an interview “drought brings the water down. Much of the lake normally hides cultural sites and villages. The looters know this flocking to the water’s newly exposed edge or they traverse the scorched earth looking for signs of Native American sites and villages.”

Many members in the Lake County Sheriff’s Office began attending training on illegal looting of artifacts . Public officials in Lake County also urged people to report looting.


Earthquakes occur as a result of tectonic plates colliding. Rocks underground break along a fault. As a result, energy is released in the form of waves causing shaking sensations to sometimes be felt.

Earthquakes threaten thousands of cultural heritage objects. The stability of historic buildings, particularly of masonry buildings, cause heavy crack patterns and damage facades, corners, roofs, and floors. Though earthquakes can lead to the destruction of art, artifacts, and other cultural heritage objects, it can also lead to looting if objects become displaced or exposed.

In 1976, Guatemala experienced a severe earthquake that measured 7.5 in magnitude. Many people were left in an impoverished state. Experts believe that the poor first began stealing icons and Pre-Columbian pieces out of desperation for money.

In 2016, the country of Italy experienced several earthquakes. Around the town of Norica, Italy, in the Perugia region, a 6.6-magnitude earthquake hit the area on October 30, 2016. The painting, “The Forgiveness of Assisi,” by French artist Jean L’ Homme, painted in 1631, and commissioned by Pope Urban VII, was kept in Santo Stefano church. Due to the church’s close proximity to the earthquake, the Church was destroyed. The parish priest told a reporting news agency that the thieves who stole the painting ignored the risk of the Church collapsing on them when they cut the painting from its frame.

The Italian government reported many of the churches, chapels and other monuments affected by the earthquake are in isolated areas and they feared more works of art are susceptible to looters. These towns have been abandoned, with their churches destroyed, making the risk of theft very high. Authorities began recovering artworks form more than 182 quake damaged or destroyed churches in the area.

On January 12, 2010, Port au Prince-Haiti was hit by an earthquake that measured a 7 on the Richter scale. Though the earthquake only lasted 35 seconds it killed more than 250,000 people, left over one million people homeless and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. Historic buildings, museums, libraries, archives, galleries, churches, theaters, artist workshops, and marketplaces were damaged and also destroyed.  Some of Haiti’s most notable attractions, The National Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, Supreme Court, all had experienced some form of collapse. In addition, thousands of paintings and sculptures whether in a museum, gallery, national attraction or in the homes of collectors were destroyed or damaged.

The National Palace was one of the most important symbols of the country. In 2010 the structure dated back less than a century and was designed French Renaissance style. The earthquake left this structure in ruins as the white dome, the buildings signature feature, collapsed. Holy Trinity Cathedral, known for murals of Bible stories with black figures experienced destruction in addition to an organ that was thought to be the largest in the Caribbean was also smashed.  The cover picture is the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, which was left in ruins from the earthquake.

The Haitian national palace shows heavy damage after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti just before 5 pm yesterday, January 12, 2009.

The Haitian national palace shows heavy damage after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale.

Haiti’s cultural heritage includes pre-Colombian, colonial, national eras, contemporary artistic creations, and cult objects. Despite the earthquake, it was feared that Haitian cultural heritage objects would become high in demand from illicit cultural trafficking, fueled by international demand, and poverty throughout the country.
Many Haitians tried to prevent looting by going through rubble to save cultural collections. Patrick Vilaire a sculptor in Haiti, stated to a reporter for the New York Times “the dead are dead, we know that. But if you don’t have the memory of the past, the rest of us can’t continue living.”

Several weeks after the earthquake had struck Haiti, UNESCO called for a ban in the trade of Haitian artifacts to prevent the pillaging of cultural treasures. Many of the landmarks UNESCO wanted to protect from looting were the Presidential Palace, Cathedral of Port-au-Prince and the town of Jacamal which Haiti was trying to get on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Tsunamis are giant waives caused by earthquakes or volcanic eruptions under the sea. As waves travel inland the height of the wave increases as the depth of the ocean decreases. When waves reach the shore they can be damaging and dangerous.

On March 11 2011, Japan was struck by a tsunami and an earthquake. The aftermath of these natural disasters left monuments and cultural landmarks severely damaged. At one point while surveying the damage, Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs tallied 353 damaged cultural properties and that number increased to 714 all of which are significant to Japan’s cultural heritage. Buildings, historical sites and archeological sites were the most damaged sustained the most damage in comparison to damage, craftworks and ancient remains which was low. Some important structures that were damaged include the Zuigan Temple, Rinno Temple, and the Futarasan Shrine.


Zuigan-ji Temple before the Earthquake

One thing that was noticed after these disasters struck Japan, was the lack of looting. Not just of cultural heritage artifacts but of everyday basic necessities such as food, water and clothing. Some of the reasons cited for the lack of looting was the stability of Japanese society, the close relationship Japanese citizens have with their government and their faith in the government, the fact integrity and honesty are traits valued in Japanese culture.


Prevention is key to saving cultural heritage. Management and investigation after the event to ascertain the damage to movable and immovable cultural heritage is very important.

In January , 2005, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction held a conference in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan, where they adopted five principles for disaster relief reduction (1) to strengthen support within relevant global, regional, national and local institutions for reducing risks at World Heritage Properties (2) use knowledge innovation, and education to build a culture of disaster prevention at World Heritage properties (3) identify, assesses and monitor disaster risks at World Heritage properties; (4) Reduce underlying risk factors at Word Heritage properties (5) strengthen disaster preparedness.

In 2007, the United Nations Education Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO), held a Convention concerning the protection of the word cultural and natural heritage. They advocated that countries integrate heritage concerns into their national disaster reduction policies. UNESCO also identified and promoted the five objectives in the Hyogo Conference that countries should consider in their disaster recovery and prevention plans.
Many museums are being constructed to protect art and their various artifacts from natural disasters. The Whitney Museum in New York City was being constructed during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. As a result of Hurricane Sandy, 5 million gallons of water flooded the site. The museum was subsequently constructed with a 15,500 pound door with water tight latches to prevent flood damage to art

Law enforcement agencies around the world are receiving education about looting and trafficking of art, antiquities and cultural heritage objects. In addition, many law enforcement agencies have developed task forces to immediately prevent looting of art, artifacts, cultural heritage objects. A big objective is to have areas surrounding a region that was inflicted with a natural disaster aware of possible trafficking, the type of objects to keep watch for, and to seize trafficked objects and store them is a safe space.

In 1997 a series of earthquakes hit Italy damaging art and architecture. Cimbue murals and school Gratto were damaged. Under the coordination of the Italian Ministry of Culture and Tourism a national Task Force of cultural heritage experts has been established. At the request of UNESCO, its member and the Italian Carbinieri specialized in the fight of illicit trafficking, are ready to deploy and safeguard cultural heritage at risk, both for preventive purposes as well as in an emergency situations resisting from natural disasters.

After the 2010, earthquake struck Haiti, UNESCO began to mobilize the international community to encourage bans on trade and transfer of Haitian cultural goods suspected of being stolen from cultural institutions and places of worship were immediately put into place. The Smithsonian led a Haiti Cultural Recovery Project. It lasted 18 months and treated 4,500 paintings, 3,500 artifacts and sculptures, and 17,000 rare books and 500 works on paper. They were also there to prevent looting of Haiti’s rich cultural heritage.

When a natural disaster strikes a country, the world is quick to provide aid to people. Many may have died or the ones that survived have lost their homes, their possessions and are without food and water. Despite the state of emergency these countries and people have been thrusted into, saving their cultural heritage is something that is not forgotten and is wanted. People do not want their cultural pasts destroyed on sold on a black market.

The world has realized cultural heritage is worth savings. Various organizations have worked together to come up with disaster plans that are not just to be implemented after a disaster but before one strikes to try and save cultural heritage as much as possible. Museums are now being constructed in ways to save art if a natural disaster should strike. Law enforcement agencies are also receiving training on looting cultural heritage and how to prevent the spread of artifacts from escaping their natural environments.

In order to save cultural heritage, countries must adopt plans to prevent destruction and looting. Plans must address how to save and survey art, artifacts, and buildings on a systematic basis to prevent destruction. Looters will risk their own safety after a natural disaster to abscond with art and other cultural artifacts to be sold. There must also be plans in place to protect cultural heritage after a disaster strikes to prevent looting.

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