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Why Guatemala's Archaeological Sites Remain Unprotected

Created on Friday, 23 February 2018 14:11
Last Updated on Friday, 23 February 2018 14:13

Newly discovered areas of Petén are unprotected and experts recommend consensus on an inter-institutional agreement to safeguard new prehispanic structures found.


By Brenda Martínez, Prensa Libre

After it was announced, at the beginning of the month, the existence of 60 thousand structures hidden in archaeological sites under the Petén forest, scanned with LiDAR technology, the question remains as to how an expanded area can be protected from predation of 2 thousand 100 square km. 

Last Tuesday, the Minister of Culture and Sports, José Luis Chea, told the EFE news agency that state funds destined for "the protection of this immense number of new monuments do not exist". The 21 excavated archaeological sites can barely be protected, with part of the Q540 million destined for sports, heritage, development and arts.

"Unfortunately, the budget of the Ministry of Culture and Sports is inadequate to ensure that there is so much cultural wealth in Guatemala. The wildlife around the archaeological sites is the jurisdiction of the Conap -National Council of Protected Areas-, so there should be better integration of these institutions to be more effective, "says archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli, a researcher who participates in the LiDAR project.

When asked if widely disseminated maps of archaeological discoveries could alert looters to their location, Estrada-Belli indicates that there are no exact references to where the sites are located. "Also, these places are unknown to the archaeologist and the rest of the population. The looters are local people and have known them very well for some time, "he adds.


Treasure plunders

"Unfortunately, looting is something that has preceded us in many places for decades. We were careful not to show-on the maps-precise details to prevent anyone from arriving, "says archaeologist Marcello Canuto. "The information is not bad, it is better to know where the sites are, than to remain unaware of their existence, because now we have to protect them," he adds. "In 90 percent of the cases, the looters have reached them, anyway. What corresponds, now, is a scientific exploration, "he says. For example, the La Corona site, during the 1960s and 1970s, was not sacked by two or three people, but by entire gangs of people for weeks or, perhaps, months.

"The Petén areas are plundered. On the El Tintal site, 2 thousand looting tunnels have been registered. During the 1980s, the illegal excavation was systematic, "explains Marianne Hernández, president of the Pacunam Cultural and Natural Heritage Foundation, who sponsored the research project with LiDAR technology.

"With this study 180 archaeological sites were identified, in which 14 thousand events of systematic looting could be registered," he adds. "There are many maps widely available, but what leads to predation is the lack of control," he says.

According to the Department of Prevention and Control of Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property, in 2016 and 2017, 16 denunciations of cultural property depredation were presented to the Public Prosecutor's Office in places like Naachtún and San Benito, Petén, detected by guards during the rounds of the sites

"We cannot give value to what we do not know, the best way to protect is to guarantee constant control with the presence of several institutions, as in Tikal, " says Hernández. "Increasing tourism is key to ensuring that the State has a presence and that these resources are not destroyed by illicit activities," adds Estrada-Belli.

The Deputy Minister of Cultural and Natural Heritage, Gladys Palala, indicates that a framework agreement and letters of understanding for a management plan for the new areas are being coordinated with public institutions and Pacunam. "We would not have the infrastructure or the economic resources to cover 2 thousand 100 square km of forest. It is a public and private institutional work with a legal platform, "he adds.

Access to jungle places

The excavation process of the new places will be very careful and, therefore, prolonged. The biggest challenge facing the experts is the isolation of the sites, as well as the lack of confidence of local people who do not distinguish between legitimate archaeologists and looters, says Estrada-Belli.

"With the new images it has been shown that it is not only important to preserve the ceremonial areas of the archaeological sites - plazas with temples, palaces and stelae - but also the peripheral areas where the agricultural fields, water sources and houses of the ordinary people, since these data allow us to explain the way these large populations fed and organized, "says archaeologist Tomás Barrientos.

"Excavation archeology represents a great amount of money and personnel. We -with Barrientos- have studied La Corona for 12 years, and we have not been able to move forward due to lack of scientific budget, "adds Canutto.

"It will be a very big task and a lot of national and international help will be needed to access these jungle places," says Palala. It will also be coordinated with the Conap so that the opening of roads and highways does not affect the flora and fauna of the Maya Biosphere.

Punishment for unlawful appropriation

According to article 332 B, Theft and Robbery of Archaeological Goods, of the Penal Code, imprisonment of 2 to 15 years will be imposed on anyone who takes possession of archaeological excavations, regular or clandestine, or discoveries.

Also, of ornaments or parts of archaeological monuments, paintings, engravings or stelae.

According to article 332 C, Traffic of National Treasures, of the Penal Code, imprisonment of 6 to 15 years and a fine of Q5 thousand to Q10 thousand will be imposed on anyone who commercializes, exports or transfers ownership or possession of patrimonial assets.

The same penalty will have who buys these stolen or stolen objects. If the acquisition is made through fault, the penalty will be reduced by half.

How to legalize parts?

The Constitution prohibits the alienation of cultural property, because they belong to the State. Therefore, no one can buy them and they are only safeguarded by private and public collections.

In order for the archaeological pieces that people have in their possession to be legal, they must register them in the Registration Department of Cultural Property, 12 avenue 11-11, zone 1. It must present IPR, photographs of the object and sworn statement that the piece it was not obtained through purchase and sale. To denounce the sale of these goods, write to the email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Courtesy: Prensa Libre