Santa Elena’s Casa de la Cultura. Photo courtesy Alejandro Figueroa

A Lesson from Honduras

A new government is in place in Honduras, yet its society is still recovering from the disastrous social, economic, and political effects of a presidential coup in 2009, including rampant corruption and violence, a volatile and changing political landscape, and social and economic inequality and uncertainty. Under the circumstances, the management of cultural heritage in and by small communities is a challenge, more so because heritage management institutions in the country are languishing. To be sure, many of Honduras’ rural communities are deeply aware of the important role their traditions and trajectories play in addressing these complex challenges, and are both curious and interested in the tangible and intangible cultural heritage that surrounds them. In Santa Elena, a rural community in the southwestern highlands of the country, the Municipal Committee for Culture and Tourism (CMCT) has managed to thrive since 2005 despite erratic funding and national social and political instability. In this essay I recount the history of the CMCT in order to explain why it has been a successful and sustainable cultural heritage management organization. Ultimately, this organization has survived because it is fully integrated into its community, and has provided the local population with a conduit to express and reinforce their collective identity and connection to a culturally meaningful landscape.

Santa Elena’s Casa de la Cultura. Photo courtesy Alejandro Figueroa

Santa Elena’s Casa de la Cultura. Photo courtesy Alejandro Figueroa

In Honduras, the investigation, protection, and promotion of cultural heritage is the responsibility of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH), founded in 1952 as a decentralized government institution within the Ministry of Culture. In 2005, the IHAH, with funding from the US State Department Ambassadors’ Fund for Cultural Preservation, reactivated the Honduran Rock Art Project (PARUP). This project was part of the IHAH’s broader policy of citizen participation in the management of cultural heritage, and included awareness and training programs which took a particularly strong hold in the community of Santa Elena, in the Department of La Paz, near the Honduras-El Salvador border.

“Believe me, all hills have their doors, even if you can’t see them.”  (Lenca elder, in Anne Chapman, 1992: p 163).

Dotted with caves and shelters containing evidence of prehistoric habitation as well as natural features such as streams, waterfalls, and hot springs, Santa Elena’s landscape is recognized by its inhabitants as meaningful and culturally charged. Santa Elena is currently inhabited by Lenca farmers with syncretic traditions who are descendants of the indigenous group that inhabited most of southwestern Honduras and northern El Salvador in the centuries prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The Lenca landscape is alive, and its inhabitants maintain a complex oral history based on the meaning and history of particular features and places.

Barranco Blanco Caves in Santa Elena. Photo courtesy Alejandro Figueroa

Barranco Blanco Caves in Santa Elena. Photo courtesy Alejandro Figueroa

Following a series of discussions and workshops between Santa Elena’s residents and IHAH archaeologists and historians, Santa Elena’s residents asked the IHAH for more: more knowledge, more training, and more logistical and political support. In response, a number of Santa Elena’s residents, particularly teachers and educators, were trained as Guardarecursos Culturales (Heritage Resource Managers) to manage and promote their local cultural heritage. Armed with this knowledge, these Guardarecursos formed the Municipal Committee for Culture and Tourism (CMCT) in 2006, which has since worked to preserve and promote the community’s cultural heritage. The CMCT’s landmark achievement, the Casa de la Cultura (Community Culture Center), is the cultural hub of the community, and hosts a small library, community archive, artifact repository, and a workspace for students. It also houses a small auditorium where cultural events such as traditional Lenca dances, concerts, and poetry readings are held, and whose props, instruments, and traditional attire are the product of historical research carried out by CMCT members themselves.

What first distinguishes the CMCT from other local government organizations in Honduras—where political agendas may change on a four-year basis—is its political resilience and independence. Even though the CMCT is linked to the Santa Elena municipal government, with which it maintains a good relationship, its members are all volunteers and comprise both the Guardarecursos originally trained by the IHAH as well as other community members trained by them. Liaisons to the municipal government are often appointed in consultation with the CMCT, whose members also oversee proposals requesting support from funding agencies. The CMCT’s mission is also unique in that it moves beyond the long-term and often hard-to-achieve economic gains of tourism, focusing instead on strengthening and encouraging understanding and appreciation of their community’s cultural heritage.

Despite a long list of successes, the CMCT’s path has been anything but smooth. The PARUP ended in 2006 and the IHAH’s priorities shifted towards other areas of the country. Despite this, Santa Elena continued to receive support from other units within the IHAH in the form of training and educational materials. This situation radically changed following the severe downsizing of the IHAH after the 2009 coup, a situation that will likely worsen in the coming years given the proposed restructuring of the Honduran government, including the dissolution of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry for Indigenous and Afrodescendant Populations (La Tribuna, January 31, 2014).

CMCT members introducing a community talk given by the author at the end of an archaeological field season in the Casa de la Cultura. Photo courtesy Alejandro Figueroa

CMCT members introducing a community talk given by the author at the end of an archaeological field season in the Casa de la Cultura. Photo courtesy Alejandro Figueroa

Throughout this tumultuous period, the CMCT nonetheless carried on its mission. Apart from its work with the Casa de la Cultura, the CMCT negotiated the donation of lands where major archaeological sites are located, trained educators in issues of cultural heritage, compiled oral histories throughout the community, and participated in regional and international cultural events. Funding for these activities was obtained directly by the CMCT from the Honduran government and a number of national and international NGOs, despite a drastic drop in support resources following the coup in 2009. By being both part of the municipal government of Santa Elena and capable of acting independently of it (and its budget), the CMCT did not have to rely on more centralized government institutions, including the IHAH, to carry out its mission. However, this has meant that access to important knowledge and resources, particularly anthropological and archaeological research, has been less available to the community and the CMCT.

The Future of Heritage Management in Honduras

The IHAH’s authority and influence on the cultural landscape of the country has waxed and waned according to the political environment. This has meant that policies and initiatives, however well intentioned, are generally short-lived. The CMCT’s path began long before the PARUP and IHAH arrived in Santa Elena with its members’ interest and commitment to their cultural heritage. This curiosity and commitment was validated and framed both legally and methodologically by the IHAH, helping the CMCT to grow and develop despite unevenness in funding and other support. Moreover, and in contrast to other communities that have received similar support from the IHAH, the CMCT focused its outreach and educational efforts on its citizens and neighbors, thus fully integrating itself into the social context it sought to represent. Under the CMCT, the Casa de la Cultura has become a nursery for cultural projects and programs, which in turn has kept the Casa de la Cultura and CMCT alive and deeply connected to Santa Elena.

Given ongoing political instability in Honduras, the future of the IHAH is uncertain even if it is not dissolved or restructured. Anthropological research by foreign (mainly US) academic institutions is at an all-time low in Honduras, due in large part to the violence that is rampant across the country, particularly following the coup of 2009. The absence of these two major heritage management players in Honduras is clearly felt, especially at a time when the relevance of cultural heritage is being questioned by the central government. However, the first ever anthropology career was inaugurated at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) in 2011. Though the career is a nascent endeavor, its position within one of the most politically and economically stable and transparent institutions in Honduras holds great promise in terms of its potential to inform and support the management of cultural heritage in the country.

Local communities such as Santa Elena are vital to insuring the sustainability of any policy or program. These capable but often isolated communities require the proper tools necessary to carry out cultural heritage management in ways that abide by the law and consider local conditions and circumstances; tools that can and should be provided by collaborations of government institutions and national and international anthropologists and archaeologists who recognize the importance of local actors and contexts. Though the future is uncertain for cultural organizations like the CMCT, its resilience suggests it might live to fight another day, and that hope remains for its community and others like it scattered across Honduras.

Alejandro J Figueroa is a PhD candidate in archaeology at Southern Methodist University and has an MA in applied anthropology (U South Florida). His current research examines long-term human-environment dynamics of Preceramic foraging populations in Honduras, though he considers public outreach and community participation a fundamental component of his career.

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