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Home/Stories and articles/Recovery
September 2002

Archeological heritage protection:
Our Conscience Decides

In the world of archeological sites and goods, what still primes in our country is ravage, pillage and smuggling. It is a problem that has just started being addressed on the last ten years, when the National Monuments Act, originally proclaimed in 1970, developed rulings that make it possible to finally protect patrimony.

The environmental impact studies demand for private companies by the Environmental National Committee (CONAMA) for any large-scale work, have become an important rescue measure, gradually developing a never-before-seen consciousness among the business world. But the traces of our ancestors keep on being daily erased and destroyed. To prevent it, the help of every Chilean man and woman is essential.

By Rosario Mena


Some months ago, Chile witnessed the first police raid to find and capture one of the most famous "guaqueros" of the Fourth Region. He was an Italian with a sharp eye for the plundering of "molle" tombs. TV screens showed the prehistoric booty over a table, the same as drugs and arsenals confiscated are shown.

"He was a good plunderer because he would take pitchers, trousseaus, metal adornments and bones", commented Víctor Lucero, archeologist, investigator, university professor and specialized consultant in environmental impact studies. Generally, the "guaquero" would reject the bone because it has no sale-value, but the metal trousseaus were very precious".

The story shows a social turning-point of huge relevance: for the first time in Chile the law was used for the protection of archeological heritage, even when the road has been long and winding and the pending classes are still a lot.

The National Monuments Act, approved in 1970, had to wait twenty one years for it to start being applied. Not until 1991 the rulings that allowed for it to become effective were dictated. By this law, archeological remains and sites, and Indian cemeteries are declared National Monuments that should be supervised and protected by the State, through the National Monuments Council, which has to give the permission for any archeological material excavation or removing. The removed elements should be given to the Council, which defines its destiny according to the ruling, always giving a certain amount to the Natural History National Museum. Whoever works in these lands without an authorization, is subject to a high fine, besides the confiscation of whatever they have taken. If they are foreigners, the law includes the chance of deportation. On the other hand, whoever finds archeological remains, no matter if they are from excavations or particular findings, has to refer it to the Province governor. Whomever destroys archeological sites and assets could face fines and imprisonment. The denouncement of these crimes is awarded with money.

Even though the law represents an important contribution to this patrimony protection, to the difficulty of establishing efficient control mechanisms we have to add once more the ignorance and lack of respect. Even when all the archeological heritage is State owned, the plundering and illegal commerce remain, in front of everybody. While particular collectors keep on engrossing their stock, in a Providencia store, among jewels and decoration, archeological pieces are sold.

Nevertheless, there are also some positive signs. "Recently, a very interesting thing happened", remembers the archeologist. "An auction of archeological assets was prohibited after it was announced on the newspaper. There were a lot of pieces, and among them some that had archeological value. The Monuments Council came and stopped the auction".

Human predators
If it is hard to detect the selling of a small "guaco", it is harder to avoid the entry of depredators to archeological sites, which are completely isolated. Due to men's brutal action, our archeological patrimony has been largely destroyed, plundered and mistreated. The north of Chile is the favorite destination of plunderers. Its dryness and the air and earth's salinity allow for the good maintenance of archeological remains, making it easier to find more assets on a good shape. From Arica, and all through the "Norte Chico", it is possible to find a good amount of remains pretty easily. It is well known that the architects and engineers that built the famous Las Tacas resort, near La Serena, got hold of a lot of pre-Columbian adornments for their homes and offices. The polychrome textiles, pottery and the metallurgy are what's most appreciated on the northern area.

Same story on the south. While the cave paintings of the Patagonia are victims of graffiti and knives, on the Temuco Central Market are sold all kinds of pre-Columbian mapuche pottery. The price varies depending on the object's size, which is commercialized with no notion of its cultural value.

"It is practically impossible to repress the plundering, because you have to catch the person digging on the site to get him arrested. In Arica, a "guaquero" was found with a room full of pieces. It is very hard to custody the sites. You can not put guards, nor fences. There are some modest and easy measures that you can take to partially avoid the destruction that always happen with the visitors, that want to leave their trace on some patrimonial places".

If the primitives imprinted their hands on the rocks to show their presence, it is natural that people that visit these places would want to do the same. Instead of spoiling the cave paintings with their hands, I would place panels for the people to paint or do whatever they want. The nitrate offices are full of signatures. Why not leave a place for people to write their name. People have the right to interact but not to destroy".

Victoria Castro, archeologist, professor and representative of the Chilean Archeological Society before the National Monuments Council, was inspired by the Peruvian example to propose the creation of a professional State staff. "Even though the National Monuments guards for the patrimony and in our country we have special visitors that guard, region by region, its fulfillment, the same that the Police does, I think the only way to have a better caution is having full-time employees dependent on the National Monuments Council that would live on the most-visible sites. In Peru, the INC (Peruvian Culture Institute) has a branch in every city with employees paid by the State.

In our country, there could be an equivalent to the CONAF keepers, well-trained by the National Monuments Council. In fact, the original populations descendents should be, in every region, the first to take part of this team, they would be doubtlessly willing. With time, the Police has become more informed and is now also a big help".

Education: the eternal problem

Reality shows that the key factor to stop our archeological heritage destruction is still the necessary conscience of every Chilean about the duty we all have for protecting the national heritage which belong to all of us. That is a no existent attitude, basically because of the dangerous gaps on education. The isolated efforts, the investigation projects done by some of this location schools and the Chilean Archeology Society work, which has an area destined to promote in schools the archeological knowledge and work are completely insufficient.

"On grammar and high school education we have to promote the importance of heritage protection. This has to start with the respect to the environment, because the cultural resources are within it. When one destroys the landscape, a lot of times you are also destroying archeological sites without being aware of it. This last weekend I was in Codehua, there were some junkyard beside unbelievable archeological sites. People go there on a holiday and throw everything everywhere. You can't stop that with laws or TV shows. It is something which is on education's core", thinks Lucero.

Professor Castro highlights the importance of including the Heritage in History classes. "People, when they are aware, value and understand key aspects of our identity, like being a multi-ethnic country. And we owe diversity respect". As a general rule, schools dedicate less than one class to the study of Chilean Pre-History, though it has eleven thousand years. The Chilean History seems to begin with the Spaniards arrival and the ethnic groups previously living here are vaguely named. "This way, kids can not recognize what a "conchal",a "tacita stone" or a hieroglyphic is", thinks Lucero. "So they paint the clay jar with spray, draw over the cave paintings or try erasing them from the walls".

Corporate consciousness: our big achievement
Law 19.300, ruling since the year 93, says that every big-scale work -roads, dams, aqueduct, electrical installations—need of a environmental impact study, which includes the visit to the place of different specialists: biologists, landscape architects, geologists and also archeologists, the ones in charge of evaluating all the cultural resources that could be in that terrain.

The final report of this study goes to CONAMA, which has to determinate if all the right measures have been taken to preserve the patrimony. About cultural heritage, the decision is on the hands of the National Monuments Council. In the case that the company does not meet the study`s directions, it is possible to present a plea to the State Defense Council, a move which will not save from the breach of contract.

"You have to check the sites, see the chance of moving the work or rescue the materials. That depends on costs and benefits. For us, the first option to preserve an archeological valuable site is to modify or transfer the works. But if the company is not willing to do so, it has to pay for the rescue costs. Businessmen are increasingly becoming aware that, among the costs, they have to include the environmental impact study. This has taken four or five years to spark", says Lucero.

According to the archeologist, with a vast experience in these kind of studies, these have been of great significance for the archeological heritage preservation on the last few years, by the rescue way and also by transferring the works. "Previously, nothing was modified, you would step over and that was it. Now, in Ralco, there's a wonderful rescue job being done, in spite of the huilliches' cemeteries problem. In Puerto Montt, the Ministry of Public Works was doing a road and found some "conchales", they did a very good rescue job. The amount of information in terms of identification, poll and site rescue since the law has started being applied, on the last few years, has quadrupled the existing information, due to the funding of private corporations".

But all the information now got has not been systematized, and there's not even a thorough record of the studies that have been done. "It is very important to make a cadastre of the sites, taking advantage the information technologies, the data bases. To put this cadastres online, with the different region's cultural heritage, placing the archeological resources by zones and types of sites. That is essential for all the work that the cultural and architectural heritage work implies. The Ministry of Public Works made a cadastre on the year 1994. But that information is now three times larger".

Victoria Castro also highlights the contribution from private companies. "A lot of firms help well-developing their projects of environmental impact and contribute to watch for the patrimony. With the new "Ley Valdés", hopefully there will be much more investment in culture and even companies themselves will develop site museums and help to the heritage valorization. That is completely possible".

Ralco: the dead-end dark street

The new corporate attitude and the responsibility assumed on the developing of their environmental impact studies have not prevented the existence of big conflicts, in which business interests are impossible to conciliate with the cultural heritage preservation. The construction of the hydro-electrical central of Ralco, by ENDESA, is still a paradigmatic example of incompatibility.

The report approved by the CONAMA contemplates the flooding of various pehuenche cemeteries. They are family vaults of no more than ten graves, spread out on different places on that zone. The archeological sites, the same as the cemeteries were identified and there is an ongoing work of pottery. The cemeteries are still untouched. And the problem of what to do with them, too. There are three choices, but none of them seem viable.

To flow the sites mean a huge aggression to the pehuenches culture, to whom the ancestors are, even more than for us, profoundly revered beings, spiritual guides. The place where they are buried is sacred. To move their remains would mean a profound lack of respect, almost a sacrilege. In the opinion of Víctor Lucero, archeologist that took part of the environmental impact study, this measure is not advisable also because of health reasons. To stop the project of the dam is almost impossible, despite the insistence of some pehuenches and ecologists that firmly oppose it.

To this difficult dilemma, we add the lack of an agreement among pehuenches themselves. While some of them reject the project completely, other ask for an individual indemnification for their deads, and a few ask for a collective compensation, as it could be the building of a good Health Center.

Behind all this, what lies is a complex cultural, economical, ethic, social and legal problem. Even though the Indian Act says one can not alienate these lands, as a respect for our ethnic minorities and the protection of our cultural heritage, it is the State itself that passes on this principle, calling for a national interest by the way of the dam construction.

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