Can Archaeology, Tourism and Conservation Coexist?

Story posted December 07, 2000

How often in daily life do we run into the need to balance the needs of competing groups. Often those competing groups, or individuals, are parents and children, students and teachers or employees and employers. For Leslie Shaw, these competing interests are archaeology, tourism and conservation.

Shaw, visiting professor in sociology and anthropology, is facing the need for this sort of balancing act through her work in the Rio Bravo Conservation Area of Belize. She spoke about the challenges she is facing in a talk at a recent faculty seminar, "Balancing Archaeology and Ecotourism in the Rio Bravo Conservation Area of Belize."

Shaw studies Mayan archaeology. After working four years on the same site in Belize, she has found she must deal with issues beyond the scope of her archeological research because of the unique location of the site she is excavating and the needs of the surrounding land and people.

Shaw works in an area of Belize known as the Rio Bravo Conservation Area.
The conservation area is run by a non-profit group, rather than the government, and its administrators need for the area to sustain itself financially. Grants provide some funds, and agricultural endeavors. Now the administrators of the area are looking to tourism for revenue by attracting people to the rainforests and the Mayan ruins.

Originally, only one large Mayan site was known to exist in the conservation area. A group of archaeologists from the University of Texas began a survey of the land and within a few years they had found five major sites and about 160 smaller sites, Shaw said, making this one of the more densely populated of the Mayan areas.

Shaw and a colleague took on a site that had never been recorded by archaeologists, a rare occurrence. The need to map and explore the site, exposed one of the first challenges of working in a conservation area — how to handle the trees. "For archaeologists, trees just get in the way," Shaw said. Even so, she and the others are cognizant of the need to protect the environment, so they are leaving trees when under different circumstances they might have cut them down.

After several years of mapping the site, Shaw is ready to begin excavating, which has made a the need to balance archaeological needs with conservation and tourism a major issue.

Tikal is the best known Mayan site in terms of tourism, and the conservationists have envisioned developing the sites in the Rio Bravo to attract tourists in the same way. At the same time, the archaeologists have priorities in terms of research, Shaw said, and conservation of the land and wildlife remains the purpose of the conservation area.

For the first time, Shaw said, she is having to develop a four to five year plan for archaeological exploration that takes into consideration the desire for both conservation and tourism.

The conservation area has been somewhat successful in bringing in tourists seeking exposure to rainforests, but less successful at bring people in to see the Mayan ruins. Before people will begin traveling to Rio Bravo for the Mayan sites, several problems must be addressed.

  • How do they create the infrastructure needed to allow tourists to visit, such as bathrooms and food vendors, and then ensure that the site is profitable by bringing in more than enough people in to pay for the improvements?
  • How can they interpret the past for a modern audience so that people will want to visit the site— and pay for the opportunity?
  • How can they expose the artifacts and ruins to tourists without having the structures damaged by the elements (or people)?
  • How can then create access to the site? (There are currently no dependable roads.)
  • How can they protect the ruins and artifacts from looters? (This is fairly simple when no one knows about the site, but difficult when publicity for tourists alerts many people to its whereabouts.)
  • How can tourism benefit the surrounding communities?

As research often brings about as many questions as answers, Shaw’s research has led to questions even about the method by which the research is conducted.

This was the final faculty seminar of this semester. They will resume again in the spring.

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