Threats to archaeological heritage in Peru: New law severly weakens protection

A new law (Supreme Decree 054-2013-PCM) and a directive for its application by the Ministerio de Cultura severely weaken the protection of archaeological sites in Peru as of June 1, 2013.

In Peru, developers are required to apply for a Certificate of Absence of Archaeological Remains (Certificado de Inexistencia de Restos Arqueológicos or CIRA). The new regulations do not require mandatory field investigations and state that a CIRA must be issued within 20 business days after the application if there is no archaeological evidence. While 20 business days may appear to be sufficient time to decide whether or not there is archaeological evidence on a small plot (e.g. for the construction of a building), within the same 20 business days decisions have to be made on extensive industrial development projects, roads, pipelines etc., and all this without ever having to leave the office.

Now, a Certificate of Absence of Archaeological Remains in itself is based on a questionable concept if one acknowledges that the absence of proof is not the same as the proof of absence. It’s like issuing Certificates of Absence of Brains for people you haven’t even met. Arguable as the CIRA may be, it could potentially serve a purpose of contributing to the protection of archaeological heritage if someone actually went looking for that heritage to begin with.

From my own experience in the coastal desert of Peru (including one or two hundred kilometres of desert walking), it is quite difficult to find an area larger than a few hectares without any archaeology if you look carefully. Of course, the desert is special in that preservation and visibility of archaeological material are often better than in areas with more moisture, vegetation etc. On the other hand, the desert outside of the river valleys is a very hostile environment which does not appear to be particularly inviting for humans.

Wherever you look (if you do look), there is archaeological evidence: A fragment of a pre-hispanic ceramic vessel found at a distance of 15 kilometres from the nearest water. Within a few hundred metres of this point, there are two Nasca Period geoglyphs, a wind shelter, small shell middens, rock piles and several  ancient trails. None of this is present in the records underlying the desk-based issuing of a CIRA, hence such a "Certificate of Absence of Archaeological Remains" would be issued within 20 working days after application if a developer wanted to build something here.

Wherever you look (if you do look), there is archaeological evidence: A fragment of a pre-hispanic ceramic vessel found at a distance of 15 kilometres from the nearest water. Within a few hundred metres of this point, there are two Nasca Period geoglyphs, a wind shelter, small shell middens, rock piles and several ancient trails. None of this is present in the records underlying the desk-based issuing of a CIRA, hence such a “Certificate of Absence of Archaeological Remains” would be issued within 20 working days after application if a developer wanted to build something here.

There are very many unknown archaeological sites, and even many known sites (e.g. published in scientific papers) are very likely not included in the site records that underly the desk-based decision-making process for the issuing of a CIRA. For example, only recently, an effort was started at the University of Kiel (Germany) to locate and add to a GIS data base the Archaic Period sites reported in the publications by Engel in the 1950s to 1970s.

A very rapid and entirely desk-based decision-making process without mandatory on-site investigation can not contribute to the protection of archaeological sites. In particular unknown sites or those which are not yet present in the records underlying the issuing of a CIRA are at risk.

What can we do? I see two possible (and not mutually exclusive) ways: One is to lobby for a change in the law to make on-site investigations mandatory before a CIRA can be issued and to allow for a longer decision-making process depending on the progress of the field investigations. Concerns can be expressed by writing to webmaster@mcultura.gob.pe and/or comunicaciones@mcultura.gob.pe. José Luis of the Heritage Defense Group asks that you send a separate copy of any letter to hatun.llaqta.arq@gmail.com if you also want the Heritage Defense Group to publicize your concern.

The other possibility is to write records about each and every archaeological site and send them to the Peruvian Ministry of Culture. If they don’t leave their desks, let’s bring the data to their desks. Perhaps even a crowdsourced effort to map all archaeological features recognisable in high-resolution satellite images (Google Earth coverage for Peru is pretty good) would be feasible.

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