Friday, September 2, 2011

In Defense of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History

Victor Manuel Ramos, editorialist for Tiempo, published a column under this title on Friday August 26. His commentary echoes much of what we said about the legislative moves proposed to shift income derived from visits to Classic Maya Copan from the Institute of Anthropology and History-- charged with the care of all the cultural patrimony of Honduras-- to the town of Copan Ruinas, the local base for Copan's archaeological tourism.

Ramos describes the role of the Institute:
charged with keeping watch over the conservation and diffusion of all the tangible and intangible properties that constitute the cultural patrimony of the nation. Founded in 1952, it has been carrying out the functions that the law imposes on it with the great economic limitations that the same law and the State has fixed on it.

Ramos reminds us that the Institute is not designed legally to develop tourism or exploit the cultural patrimony, and underlines the historic lead it has taken in promoting international research collaboration:
it has assigned functions intended to carry out scientific and academic investigations to disentangle many of the unknowns in the knowledge of the cultures of our Precolumbian forebears and of history after the discovery [of the Americas], a responsibility that it fulfills, almost entirely, thanks to the cooperation that foreign academic institutions and universities that send us their students to carry out studies and doctoral theses.

He outlines the economic model that has sustained the Institute's activities for the last 35 years:
A large part of the financing of the Institute comes from the activities that the institution itself carries out, fundamentally thanks to the funds provided by ticket sales at the National Monuments that are under its responsibility. One of these monuments is the Maya Ruins of Copan, of extraordinary archaeological value and considered as one of the most valuable cultural riches of humanity.

He correctly gives credit to the Institute for the preservation and development of Copan:
It has been the Institute that is the institution that has been charged with the care, the conservation, the investigation and the promotion of the Ruins of Copan, the reason that it has been converted into one of the sites of great influx of visitors to the country. As a consequence, the largest part of the funds with which the Institute functions, with great difficulties because the budget always is insufficient, come from the Ruins of Copan.

In other words, without the care that the Institute has historically exercised, Copan would not have become the recognized destination for visitors that has become a source of income for the residents of the town. This, he notes, undercuts the claim made by the town
because if that situation should come to pass the Institute would enter a phase of economic precariousness and would proceed irremediably to bankruptcy, with consequent responsibilities for the State, since such a blow would lead to the failure to fulfill the obligations agreed by Honduras with UNESCO in relation to the management of the cultural patrimony of the country, above all because the Ruins of Copan are inscribed as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage.

What Ramos doesn't mention here is that UNESCO has expressed concerns already about aspects of the management of Honduran world heritage sites, including endangerment of Maya archaeological sites by a proposed airport, and threats to the Rio Platano Biosphere from development.

Quite correctly, Ramos notes that the town of Copan
receives most benefits from the Archaeological Park, because the enormous quantity of visitors also stay in the hotels of the locality, they consume food, they buy crafts, they visit the restaurants and the shops and use local transportation. All those businesses contribute taxes to the municipality. More than that, the benefits that the Institute receives are really limited if we compare them with those that the entire community and the municipality receives, since the costs for entry are very cheap and if we do an analysis of the expenditures of the visitors we will see that a tiny quantity corresponds to the Institute in the shape of tickets since the major part of the expenditures of the tourists remains in the hands of the local business people.

Ramos ends by noting that while Copan is cultural patrimony, it is not
the sole Precolumbian patrimony that the nation possesses: there are the ruins in the San Pedro Sula area, the ruins in the Valley of Otoro, the ruins in Catacamas, in Comayagua, in Atlantida, in Los Naranjos and El Puente. All of those sites, in their majority require enormous investments for their study, restoration and conservation because, equally, they are part of the valuable legacy that our ancestors offered us and, as will be understood, only with difficulty can the Institute fulfill its great obligations if we take shears to its meager budget in violation of the law.

Even without the political redirection of income from Copan away from the Institute, support for the broader mission of development the general cultural heritage has been, and remains, tenuous. While Ramos does not make this explicit, the vulnerability of the Institute now is a consequence of first, the appointment by the de facto regime in 2009 of someone whose comprehension of this mission was nonexistent to lead the secretariat of culture. Since the inauguration of the Lobo Sosa government, the leadership of the Institute of Anthropology has remained in the hands of someone appointed by this functionary of the coup government, while the position of secretary of culture is held by someone with a seriously flawed concept of culture and no apparent success in governing this critical sector of the government.

The losers will be the Honduran people, whose historical legacies the Institute is charged with preserving, studying, and representing to the public.

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