Week 10 SCRAP Reading Group: Archaeology & Environmental Justice

On Friday, we had our 10th meeting of the SCRAP virtual reading group. We had 11 participants–again, from Belize, Canada, and US–and kept talking for more than 2 hours! Obviously, this was a hot topic and it was definitely another great conversation. Our special guest was Dr. Julie Hoggarth, and the article was selected by our newest group member, Dr. Claire Ebert. We were also joined by Dr. Claire Novotny, who recently took part in a follow-up conversation we had after our last reading about “Archaeologies of the Heart.” See below for a summary of this week’s reading and our discussion questions.

Douglass, Kristina and Jago Cooper. 2020. Archaeology, environmental justice, and climate change on islands of the Caribbean and southwestern Indian Ocean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117:8254-8262.

I (Claire E.) chose this article for our group discussion this week for several reasons. First, in the context of current events and calls for increased social justice, I have been thinking about how archaeology can not only reflect on its past regarding these issues, but also use current strengths to productively speak to them. Second, many of us think about some aspect of the environment in our research – ranging from were people get their food, to how they used building materials, to the impacts of drought. However, I have found that broad treatments of environmental archaeology are lacking from Mesoamericanists. This includes not only a definition of “environmental archaeology” for Mesoamerica, but also how our research can address modern environmental concerns, including extreme climate events that are increasingly frequent across the region. While Douglas and Cooper focus their discussion on islands, their paper provides a useful as a framework to brainstorm about how to define and expand upon the role environmental archaeology in Mesoamerica.

The authors discuss the important of position of archaeology in addressing climate-related hazards and resilience to these hazards in both the past and the present. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has developed measures to assess vulnerability to climate change in contemporaneous societies, but they lack a deep-time perspective to inform their recommendations. Archaeology is powerful in this regard because it provides cultural, historical, and environmental narratives that describe long-term processes and their consequences. Douglas and Cooper point out, however, that documenting technological solutions of the past are not the most important contribution of archaeology to modern climate change solutions. Instead, it is that archaeology can highlight, “the historically contingent  historical disruptions to livelihoods, landscapes, ecologies, and intergenerational knowledge transfer that have made contemporary communities more vulnerable to climate change impacts and less flexible in their response” (p. 8255). In other words, to provide solutions to present and future climate change, archaeologists must communicate (effectively) how past environmental circumstances and injustices have created today’s vulnerabilities. The authors present two case studies to illustrate these points:

Case Study 1: The Caribbean

This region is vulnerable to extreme climate events, which have been met with differing responses throughout the occupational history of the region. For example, archaeologists have documented that salinization of coastal freshwater sources provided an early warning for sea level rise and encouraged the abandonment of these zones prior to flooding events. Historical circumstances including genocide during European contact, the forced migration of Africans to the Americas, and more recent industrialization have also shaped the ecologies of the Caribbean and challenged resilience in some cases. Modern responses to hurricanes, which are becoming increasingly intense, focus on resistance high winds and storm surge. Resilience to these events has been limited by adoption of European settlement patterns ~500 years ago, where populations aggregate around rivers and estuaries, and by the use of construction techniques involving rigid and more costly materials compared to prehistoric times. 

Case Study 2: Madagascar

While the islands of the southwest Indian Ocean (SWIO) were colonized relatively late in African prehistory, they have been essential players in some of the most important (pre)historic maritime contact/trade routes. Communities in the SWIO had unique responses to environmental issues within the colonial context, in some cases developing strategies to mitigate food crises by adopting non-native species brought through trade into subsistence systems. For example, people living in southern Madagascar were resilient to food insecurity by adapting agropastoral systems to include non-native crops such as the drought-resistant prickly pear for food, fodder, and shelter. The cactus was subsequently eradicated in the late 18th c. by the French colonial administration to, “a measure to civilize the south, disrupt a way of life deemed unproductive and prone to failure, and force southerners to adopt ‘modern’ agropastoral practices” (p. 8258). In other instances, mobility, which had traditionally been practiced to mitigate water scarcity (linked to food insecurity), has been limited in postcolonial contexts especially in the context of urbanization. Both of these past environmental injustices have lasting consequences.

The two case studies reveal commonalities between past shifts in ecology and culture and their impacts on modern environment justice. Their analyses highlight four commonalities:

  1. Environmental baselines: Non-native species or practices may have been adopted into sustainable resources management practices. Sustainable development strategies should keep these historically contingent strategies in mind.
  2. Local vs. global: There is a need to center indigenous forms and practices documented through archaeology. Its also important to communicate about resilient practices to policy makers to demonstrate that “modern” is not necessarily better.
  3. Tipping points: There is a need to understand when and how ecologies shifted, and the role of humans in these processes. Identifying tipping points helps us understand when environmental baselines changed (and if they can ever revert).
  4. Value/vulnerability of local and indigenous knowledge: The past provides a rich narrative from which to innovate future adaptive strategies to mitigate environmental hazards. Knowledge loss has occurred, especially in colonial and postcolonial contexts, and there is a need to “revitalize and preserve indigenous languages, knowledge, and oral histories represent a critical dimension of planning for a just and sustainable future” (p. 8260).

Potential Discussion Questions (in no particular order):

  • What does an environmental archaeology of Mesoamerica look like? Who is involved in the research and who are the stakeholders?
  • What types of questions should environmental archaeology in Mesoamerica address and why these questions?  Should the be broad in temporal and spatial scope, focus on particular sites/communities/time periods, or both?
  • If the Maya lowlands was used as a case study in this paper, what three (or more) major environmental issues would we highlight?
  • What specific vulnerabilities and hazards can archaeology address successfully, and which ones can archaeology not address?
  • How can environmental archeology join conversations surrounding modern environmental justice and ecological heritage?
  • How can we center indigenous/local knowledge dialogues between archaeology and modern policy makers?
  • What does environmental justice look like in Mesoamerica? How do we connect this to larger issues of diversity, inclusivity, and social justice?
  • Douglas and Cooper describe the negative environmental impacts of tourism on Zanzibar. How does archaeological (or other) tourism in Belize (or elsewhere) impact the environment? How can tourism promote environmental justice?