This week’s post is an interview with Rebecca Bria, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University. Rebecca conducts fieldwork in the Callejón de Huaylas Valley of Peru that has a strong community outreach component. You can find out more about the her research through the project’s Facebook Page and website. Rebecca also has a limited number of openings for her 2011 field school project. Rebecca’s work illustrates the common threads that link successful community outreach in different parts of the world.
First off, tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to study archaeology?
I consider myself an anthropological archaeologist and I began doing field archaeology in the Andes ten years ago. I currently attend Vanderbilt University where I am in the final stages of my PhD, working on my dissertation. I also have an MA and BA from Northern Illinois University. I feel the diversity of my experiences in archaeology over the last decade – in Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Belize, North America, the Persian Gulf, and Sicily – allow me to study the past from equally diverse perspectives and approaches. I am always looking to improve my techniques in the field and expand the theory I use to understand the ancient past, and I constantly draw on these experiences to do so.
What is the Proyecto de Investigación Arqueológico Regional Ancash (PIARA) and what are the organization’s goals?
PIARA is an archaeological research project that formally began in 2009 through its registry with the Peruvian National Institute of Culture (now the Ministry of Culture) in conjunction with Peruvian collaborators. PIARA seeks to carry out a long-term research project within the highland Andes, specifically in the region of Ancash, Peru. Since the project began it has focused its investigations in the Callejón de Huaylas valley, and so far we have carried out a regional survey in the northern valley and test excavated the sites of Pariamarca and Hualcayan. This is an extremely exciting area to work in given its impressive landscape, it’s the potential for generating new data, and the opportunity to work with the indigenous Quechua communities that reside there. My goal for PIARA is to continue work in the northern Callejón de Huaylas valley for at least the next decade to allow for an in-depth study of the area’s prehistory as well as to develop and maintain relationships with the communities and municipalities of the region. As these relationships are strengthened, my hope is that we can more effectively collaborate on and execute preservation, development and education projects with a higher level of success and sustainability than with a series of geographically dispersed, short-term projects.
The idea of working on development projects with the host community, particularly in South America, seems somewhat of a recent development for archaeologists. Is that correct? What got you interested in adding this component?
Certainly there are connections between the growth of indigenous rights movements and the increase in development projects in Latin America over the last several decades. Still, in academia, development projects are usually treated as extraneous to the research one has officially set out to do and therefore time and funds spent in these areas are not considered priorities. However many archaeologists working with indigenous groups or in developing countries soon realize that they not only need to spend time working with local groups for logistical reasons, but that they have a responsibility greater than the extraction of data for research. This is what sets apart field-based sciences from other sciences. If our investments in research never benefit the communities who are the caretakers of the data sources we seek, we risk the further disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples from their natural and cultural resources and even alienating them from their own history.
The decision to add a community outreach component to PIARA was in part influenced by examples set by others in the Andes and elsewhere, but mainly grew naturally through my own personal experiences living and working in the communities of my research area. After extended periods living with and befriending these individuals, listening to their stories, frustrations, and desires, it would personally seem unnatural – or at least unethical – not to collaborate with them in some way. In the Andes, the idea of social reciprocity is particularly valued, and offering something in return for their hospitality is very important. At a broader scale, I believe archaeologists have an ethical responsibility to give back what we can, even in small ways, particularly as we have the potential to gain greatly from our academic work, both personally and professionally.
Your website notes that providing School Resources, Heritage Education, and Tourism Development are included in the development projects. How were these areas decided on?
In Peru, many tensions exist between a community’s or a family’s desire to expand their agricultural or grazing territories and the legal requirement (and perhaps ethical duty) to preserve a nearby archaeological site that is declared as national patrimony. All archaeologists working in Peru must report their findings to the Ministry of Culture, and when we do, we risk taking away the rights of the local community to use the land for other purposes. Therefore, it is extremely important in my opinion to find ways to balance these forces and brainstorm collectively – foreign investigators, Peruvian collaborators, and community members together – to find creative solutions for site preservation and alternatives for economic growth. In many cases the archaeological site itself can be this alternative source through tourism.
In Hualcayan where I am currently working, there is no secondary school due to the community’s remoteness, small size, and lack of financial support by local and federal governments. Therefore, education opportunities that incorporate high school-age children into our research project serve to not only continue the education of this age group but to also provide learning opportunities that are otherwise rare in the rural educational system, such as hands-on training in the scientific method through data collection and hypothesis testing. These children are also the future of the village, and while many community members do not currently express a feeling of personal or historical connection to the archaeological remains in their own back yard (due to a number of historical events) the children and young adults are interested in tourism. Therefore, they may hold greater potential for managing their cultural heritage in thoughtful, creative, and sustainable ways if we give them the tools that allow them to take collective intellectual ownership of their heritage (rather than, for example, letting tourists purchase a handful of looted artifacts for a small personal gain).
Is the local community directly involved in your field projects?
Yes, we make sure that anyone from the community who is interested in working with us for a daily wage has that opportunity, often on a rotating basis. We also invite the community to visit the excavation and discuss our findings through visual presentations. Incorporated into these presentations are open forums where we discuss the research and the other projects we would like to develop in conjunction with them. Beyond these communities, my largest collaboration was recently made between PIARA and the nearest university in Huaraz, Peru: the National University of Ancash – Santiago Antúnez de Mayolo. Through this collaboration, UNASAM university students have the opportunity to attend the PIARA field school free of charge where they can learn alongside their international peers while gaining experience in the archaeology of their own region. I have also arranged to donate certain field equipment to the university after the 2011 project is compete so that the students have more resources to carry out their own independent research projects in the future.
What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned from your project? Any words of wisdom for other institutions that are trying to get their community development programs off the ground?
While I myself am very much in the initial stages of my own outreach program, my experiences over the past several years have taught me that the most important elements you can bring to any development project are time, patience and perseverance. You must be willingly engaged in listening to people and creating bonds of trust. Otherwise effective, creative collaborations between you and the communities you are trying to help will not emerge. You must also inform yourself about the social, political, and economic ties that currently bind people, communities, and municipalities together or drive them apart. Even though this knowledge and these relationships can take several years to procure, learning these subtleties can mean the difference between a successful project where people are motivated to work together (and with you) and projects that will likely fail or be short-lived. However, if one project fails, there is always an opportunity to reflect and revise a strategy; this is where patience and perseverance come in. Also, start small and perhaps even stay small with realistic goals. Go with programs that grow naturally out of your interactions and that address true needs. Finally, while PIARA has yet to be around long enough to tell its own success story, I strongly believe that sustained, positive interactions with the youth over the long term holds the biggest promise for lasting success.