Steward the Past and Avoid Harm?

Charles Golden
Brandeis University

Andrew Scherer
Brown University

The ethical guidelines of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) call archaeologists to stewardship, and exhort us to serve as “both caretakers of and advocates for the archaeological record for the benefit of all people.” To act for the benefit of “all people” is, however, easier said than done and our efforts to steward the past can have complex implications for the communities where we work. The AAA Statement on Ethics acknowledges these difficulties, enjoining us to do no harm, to act honestly, to obtain necessary permissions, and to weigh competing ethical obligations recognizing that “defining what constitutes an affected community is a dynamic and necessary process.” What happens, though, when our role as stewards conflicts with the beliefs and interests of local stakeholders?  How are we to operate when local stakeholders have competing visions for the use of the land and its resources, or when local communities with their own claims over the past do not recognize the authority of the national or local government?

For a little over a decade we have faced these issues while leading a regional research project focused on the political world of the Precolumbian Maya in the Usumacinta River valley, which today forms much of the border between Guatemala and Mexico.  In Guatemala we work in the Sierra del Lacandón National Park (SLNP), where the renowned Classic Maya capital of Piedras Negras is located.  Park managers work closely with the well-established agricultural cooperatives around the borders of the SLNP to achieve a balance between environmental and economic sustainability.  The park is, however, frequently at risk from “invasores,” illicit settlers who occupy parkland without legal permission.  These illicit settlers loot archaeological sites and clear forest without proper fire controls, destroying the cropland and natural resources of legal communities.  They also create security risks for park rangers and researchers, some of whom they have attacked and held captive.  Such actions have frequently impinged on our ability to mount effective investigations and thwarted the conservation efforts of park authorities.

The larger political and economic situation in Guatemala means that while some invasores are connected to ranching or narco-trafficking interests, some are merely people in search of land to support the basic needs of their families.   As archaeologists involved in the conservation of the cultural resources of the park, we find ourselves working in the public domain as advocates for park authorities who seek peaceful, legal means for the relocation of these illicit communities to areas outside the park.   In so doing, we are acting from the position that while some economic harm may come from the relocation of these families, there is a greater good in protecting the cultural and natural resources of the park in the interests of the people of Guatemala and especially those licit communities that ring the park and legally take advantage of its resources.  Many of these communities have existed for decades and suffered heavily in Guatemala’s civil war.  They depend on a healthy ecosystem to practice sustainable use of the forest and look to the possibility of eco- and archaeo-tourism development in the longer-term.

On the Mexican side of the river there is a very different economic and political environment. Towns of private landowners are interspersed with communities that hold land as inalienable communal property.  Both private and communal landowners are often reluctant to permit archaeological work.  Some refuse us entry out of the fear of government expropriation of their property.  Others simply want nothing to do with the central government; as archaeologists with permits held from that government we are viewed as its agents.  Some people know that archaeological work would impinge on what they view as their own perfectly legitimate efforts to mine ancient architecture for building materials for modern homes.  For others, there is a desire to see immediate, often unrealistic, economic gain that we are unwilling to falsely promise.  While field research can offer short-term economic benefits from employment, archaeological projects are typically not long-term development projects and archaeologists are not well-trained in development. We do our best, however, to work with communities on local museums, touristic development, or other efforts initiated by the community.

Despite these challenges our work has moved forward in large part thanks to a few local interlocutors.  These long-term collaborations have helped us develop relationships of trust in the communities where we work and opened doors for further research.  Patience and dialogue have been fundamental.   When prevented from documenting a site we have chosen not to leverage the legal recourse available to us from national authorities that might permit us access. Any short-term gain would simply come at the cost of eroding local trust in the long-term.

Ultimately we find ourselves balancing the necessities of research against the diverse interests of the communities in which we work. Our ideal research goal in both Guatemala and Mexico would be full-coverage survey. In reality we must accept a more patchwork outcome that reflects our contemporary entanglements. That we consider the needs and interests of local communities and have been unable to document some sites has been indirectly attacked in national grant applications.   At least one reviewer has lambasted our approach as “drive-by archaeology.”  We would ask what such a reviewer imagines are the rights and responsibilities of an archaeologist?

Archaeologists must accept that we are frequently arrogating to ourselves the right to decide what past, and present, should be stewarded and what the least harmful course of action may be.   We must do our best to engage all local stake-holders in stewardship, though some may refuse such engagement.  We must accept that there are times we cannot, and perhaps should not, protect the cultural patrimony that we hold dear.  We must also accept that despite our best intentions we may not be able to protect that patrimony without doing harm of some sort to local communities, and we must weigh this against the benefits for other stake-holders.   Finally, it is an ethical imperative that we do a better job of preparing our students – the next generation of archaeologists – to wrestle with such conundrums, to acknowledge the ambiguities and perhaps be yet better and less harmful stewards than we ourselves sometimes are.

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