Follow by Email

Monday, April 21, 2008

Learning from U.S. Mistakes

Environmental Impact Assessment,
Cultural Resource Management
and Historic Properties
Learning from the Errors of the United States

Cultural Resource Management

Back in the 1970s, archaeologists in the United States faced a challenge. New laws had been enacted promoting the protection of “natural resources” on the one hand and “historic properties” on the other. Government agencies were being required to conduct environmental impact assessments of their actions, seeking ways to protect the environment. How could archaeologists be sure that the places they were concerned about – archaeological sites – were protected by these legal requirements?

Among other things they needed a term to describe such sites that seemed a little grander than the esoteric term “archaeological site.” It should be a term that related somehow to “natural resources,” but of course archaeological sites are not “natural,” they are cultural in origin. “Historic property” was the term that architectural historians used for the cultural places – old buildings and structures – that they were interested in, but that term didn’t describe archaeological sites very well – particularly prehistoric archaeological sites.

So archaeologists invented the term “cultural resources,” and called what they did – surveying to find archaeological sites and excavating them to “mitigate” the impacts of construction projects on them – “cultural resource management.”

These terms have gained broad acceptance in the United States, and are being used increasingly in other nations. This, I suggest, is most unfortunate.

Consider for a moment all the “resources” that a culture may think valuable. Consider, for example, an indigenous group living in a forest. Among the resources that it uses to sustain its culture, surely, are:

• The indigenous language;
• Place names;
• Stories and traditions;
• Songs;
• Rituals and religious practices;
• Religious beliefs;
• Subsistence practices;
• Animals and plants;
• The landscape in which the group lives, or that it uses;
• Water sources, and sources of other natural resources; and
• The group’s social organization and family structure.

Now imagine that some government-regulated project is proposed in the vicinity – say, a logging project – and either government or the project sponsor performs an environmental impact assessment (EIA). If it follows the model employed in the United States, production of this EIA will be supervised by environmental scientists of some kind, perhaps biologists. It will include an element dealing with “cultural resources,” but no one will define this term. Archaeologists will most likely be in charge of finding and assessing impacts on such resources.

Will the archaeologists consider the indigenous group’s social organization? Its religious practices? The plants and animals and water sources it values? Its subsistence practices? No, the archaeologists will consider impacts on archaeological sites. But in the U.S., they will say that they have performed a “cultural resource” analysis; that they have done “cultural resource management.” The biologist in charge of the EIA is likely to take the archaeologists at their word; after all, they are the experts. So the report on the EIA, in its “cultural resource” section, will talk about archaeological sites, and perhaps old buildings and structures. Most of the indigenous group’s cultural environment will be ignored, and impacts on its religious practices, social organization, plants and animals, and so on will simply not be analyzed.

It may be that some of these important cultural aspects of the environment will be addressed by others working on the EIA – perhaps those performing social impact assessment (SIA). But in the United State at least this often does not happen, because “social” impact assessment becomes equated with “socioeconomic impact assessment,” and focuses only on easily quantifiable economic factors. Religious practices, beliefs, social structures, the cultural significance of plants and animals, even many aspects of subsistence are ignored. So if the logging project goes forward, perhaps the archaeological sites get protected somehow, or are excavated before they are destroyed. But most of the “cultural resources” that matter most to the indigenous group are not considered, and are lost.

So here is one lesson to learn from the mistakes the United States has made: say what you mean! If archaeological sites are the subject, call them archaeological sites; do not use some vague euphemism like “cultural resource.” On the other hand, if you say you will assess impacts on “cultural resources,” consider all such resources that are relevant to the area, the project, and the people and cultures involved.

Historic Properties

Another mistake the United States has made is to use its “National Register of Historic Places” as the centerpiece of its historic preservation system. The National Register is a list maintained by the U.S. National Park Service. The list includes “districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects” significant in U.S. history, prehistory, archaeology, architecture, engineering, and culture. Under U.S. law, those doing environmental impact assessment must consider impacts on places included in the Register and on those not yet included but eligible for the Register. If there are questions about whether a given place is eligible for the Register, they are resolved by the Register’s “Keeper,” a National Park Service official.

The major problem with this system is its anti-democratic character. Again consider our hypothetical indigenous group. Imagine that there is a place where the group collects plants used in a very important healing ritual. If the group wants this place to be considered in the EIA on the logging project, and the project is in the United States, the group is going to have to convince those doing the EIA that its plant-gathering area is eligible for the National Register. It will have to frame its argument for eligibility in terms that are meaningful to “professionals” – mostly architectural historians and archaeologists – in the National Park Service and the offices of the State Historic Preservation Officers. These people are likely to ask all kinds of strange questions – what are the boundaries of the place, how often do you use it, how long has it been used? And if they decide, for whatever reason, that the place is not eligible, then it receives little or no consideration in the EIA. Is this reasonable in a democracy? That government should consider its impacts only on things that government decides are important? Should not the people have some say in the matter, when the importance of a thing is theoretically based on their cultural values?

So another lesson to learn, I believe, is not to place too much emphasis on lists like the National Register. Lists can be important tools in bookkeeping; they are less useful in planning and environmental impact assessment, and if they assume the status of a national institution as the National Register has in the U.S., they can suppress the voice of the people in the protection of their cultural patrimony.

A Better Model

A better approach to dealing with cultural resources in EIA, I believe, is found in the Akwé:Kon Guidelines issued in 2004 by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. These remarkable guidelines recommend the conduct of integrated “cultural, environmental, and social impact assessments” when planning development. These assessments are to be carried out in close consultation with local communities, and are to address impacts on whatever is important to such communities. If environmental impact assessments were done along the lines recommended by Akwé:Kon (a Mohawk Indian word meaning “everything in creation”) – assuming they were done responsibly and well – then we would actually be doing “cultural resource management” and we could largely dispense with esoteric national lists like the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

In suggesting a democratic, consultative approach to “cultural resource management” that looks at all aspects of the cultural environment rather than just at archaeological sites and historic buildings or structures, I do not mean that such sites, buildings, and structures should be ignored. Of course, they should be considered in EIA in a way that is sensitive to their importance in archaeological research and architectural patrimony. But what we should not do is focus all our attention on archaeological and architectural matters to the exclusion of what matters most to local people whose cultural environments are affected by modern development. The United States has unfortunately allowed itself to fall into this elitist, antidemocratic trap; others, I suggest, would do well to try to avoid it.


Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity
2004 Akwé: Kon Voluntary Guidelines for the Conduct of Cultural, Environmental and Social Impact Assessment regarding Developments Proposed to Take Place on, or which are Likely to Impact on, Sacred Sites and on Lands and Waters Traditionally Occupied or Used by Indigenous and Local Communities. CBD Guidelines Series, Montreal,

No comments: