Sunday, March 4, 2012

Does it Matter if Cultural Patrimony Law is Defied?

Does it matter, in Honduras, at Copan (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter) if politicians intervene in the legally mandated management of cultural heritage?

Before you answer that question, think clearly about what is at stake here. And if you are in the US, don't get feeling superior. Across the US, state governments have taken aim at historical preservation positions, many necessary to comply with existing laws. Under the Bush administration, the Federal government explored privatizing national archaeological responsibilities. With a generation of Federal archaeologists and anthropologists retiring, scholars have noted that there is a passive erosion in the presence of these necessary disciplines in the US at the Federal level.

Honduras has had heritage legislation on the books for longer than the US. The modern Honduran Institute for Anthropology and History is the successor to an institution that was established in 1952. Over the last twenty-five years it made steady progress towards policies guided by research and social goals under the direction of scholars trained in anthropology and history. In all that time, though, it has been at risk from the low level of funding provided by the Honduran national government. The magnitude of the responsibilities it has have always been under pressure from that lack of resources. In addition, the modern Institute has been under considerable pressure to facilitate increases in tourism, which (as every archaeologist knows) can often be a goal at odds with the preservation and careful investigation of material remains of the past for the purpose of sharing knowledge about it with all those who have a stake in that knowledge.

Now, Honduran archaeologists, anthropologists, and Honduras face an "agreement" forged at Copan, in reaction to public unrest about a particular proposal for a museum exhibition, but following on a long campaign to claim income from the archaeological park directly (rather than indirectly, through the spending of tourists staying at the town while visiting the site). US scholars should be concerned about this precedent, not just for Honduras, and not just because Copan is a World Heritage site, but because it represents an essential shift to viewing cultural heritage as a commodity.

Former Minister of Culture Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle, a historian with a distinguished record teaching in Mexico and more recently as a visiting professor in the US, gave us permission to reproduce comments he made in email circulating among scholars in the US and Honduras:
The municipalities should participate in the promotion and supervision of the tourist market, and on the other hand they do NOT have the technical capacity to administer archaeological parks and centers of investigation; and to me it appears evident that these municipalities should not, being the principal, indirect beneficiaries of the public investment in archaeology, divert from the institutionalities the indispensable resources, while there are no others to be provided.

This is nonetheless a longing that is almost ancient that has had resonance in the previous government of President Maduro and the temptation of the politicians is powerful because they do not understand the technical dilemma and the approach is congruent with the neoliberal policies of privatization...

(Perhaps one of the most grave prices of the coup was to derail the project to consolidate the [Copan Archaeological] Park with the purchase of lands that we had declared a primary priority.)

The support for "municipalization" is worrying because they invoke their signatories, on the part of the Minister of the Interior [Áfrico Madrid] (one of the most powerful) and of the Minister of Tourism, one of the best financed... The Minister of Culture who is the President of the IHAH does not seem to have been present.

The predicament is interesting. They have been diffident to "intervene" in other matters, with respect to the administration of IHAH, tolerating its manipulation, and now, because of its new institutional weakness they could be endangering the conditions for scientific work.

Pastor Fasquelle's comments bring to light the glaring absence in the present instance of the Minister of Culture, who should be the voice of the mission of the Institute.

For her part, the Honduran archaeologist Eva Martinez, who remained part of the staff of the Institute throughout the de facto regime of Micheletti and continues today as Subgerente de Patrimonio (roughly, Assistant Director for Cultural Patrimony), also sees the Copan agreement as a grave erosion of the ability of the country to properly care for the materials as heritage of all its people. Dr. Martinez gave us permission to quote her as well:
I am against the municipalization of the PAC [Parque Arqueológico Copán]. I consider it necessary to involve the municipal authorities and the citizenry in the active protection of the cultural patrimony, and I believe that this is an important means of development (in the best sense of the word). But to remove 50% of the income of the PAC from the IHAH is not a way to share responsibilities in the conservation of the patrimony, and for that reason I oppose it.

You [the archaeologists and historians addressed in the original email] know well the complex and complicated history between the Municipality and the IHAH, so that you will understand what this is all about and you also know from reading it that this document lacks legal force. Nonetheless, its intention is worrisome.

Martinez makes a point that Pastor Fasquelle-- who, during two terms as Minister of Culture, promoted programs to engage the people in active ways in protection and understanding of Honduras' past-- agrees with, that there is a proper goal that could be confused by the naive reader with what is happening here. Engaging communities with locally sited heritage is one way to create an ethic of stewardship.

But as she says bluntly: that goal is not met by treating the site as an economic resource. In fact, world-wide, treating sites as economic engines is a threat to their preservation, and may divert resources from their understanding.

Martinez refers to the complex and complicated history between the Institute and Copan-- a history too complex to even begin to touch on here. Implicitly, she is reminding us that Copan has for a long time been at odds with the IHAH, wanting to claim special privileges in management of the park, without-- as Pastor Fasquelle notes-- the technical expertise.

She is entirely right that, under existing Honduran law, including the Honduran constitution, the agreement signed has no legal force. But here is where I am perhaps more concerned by it that others might be, who saw it as simply a theatrical act meant to calm down the people: the current congress of Honduras has shown no timidity about changing the constitution, and even ignoring aspects of the constitution and established law, when it interferes with what Pastor Fasquelle accurately calls the "neoliberal policies of privatization".

And so, whether legal or not, this document should concern every reader who cares about how countries manage their common goods, and how the public in general can continue to have protected its interests in understanding the past.

No comments: