Protecting archaeological sites in the Amazon is essential for environmental wellbeing

River, Manaus Brazil

The Brazilian Amazon is seeing a surge in illegal land occupations, tree clearing, forest fires, and illegal mining—among other environmental crimes. This not only degrades one of the world’s most biodiverse natural environments, but also impacts local communities, leading to the loss of traditional livelihoods, harmful health effects and spikes in crime and violence. One often overlooked aspect of this destruction entails the growing risks to, and destruction of, archaeological sites—not just known ones, but also those that have yet to be found and studied.

A rich human history

Contrary to the common perception that the Amazon is a vast, empty, untouched space, the region was densely populated before the arrival of Europeans. At the peak of its pre-colonial period, up to ten million people lived in the Amazon, in arrangements that ranged from relatively isolated communities to enormous complexes of villages. Many of these communities left material vestiges, from burial sites to groves of Brazil nut trees. Most archaeological sites in the Amazon are concentrated in the "anthropogenic black earth" (terra preta): large patches where the topsoil has been enriched by past human presence. These sites are a testimony to efficient living with the environment, as opposed to in spite of it.

Archaeologists working in the Amazon highlight that protecting these sites is not simply a matter of preserving the past—it is also essential for understanding the possibilities of sustainable living in the Amazon, now and in the future. 

Heritage under threat

Archaeologists—including a small but growing number of indigenous researchers —face considerable challenges in studying these sites. The expansion of the agricultural, ranching and mining frontier causes widespread deforestation and generates crime and violence, which sometimes affects archaeologists' access to the sites. Climate change only makes these hurdles greater, for instance as intensifying floods and soil erosion impact the archaeological sites. 

In June 2019, for instance, dozens of pre-colonial artifacts were shattered by tractors belonging to mining companies harvesting sand in an area between the cities of Manaus and Itacoatiara. Earlier this year, millennial geoglyphs—depressions up to ten meter wide and dug by indigenous communities in what is now the state of Acre—were bulldozed to make space for cornfields. While archeologists and local residents report these events to the national Institute for Historical and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN), the agency—linked to the Ministry of Tourism—lacks the resources and personnel to protect the sites. Researchers believe that the intensifying land invasions that have been actively encouraged by President Jair Bolsonaro—who has called archaeological remains in the Amazon petrified Indian poop”—are accelerating the destruction of this heritage.

A growing archive of knowledge

Researchers have a key role to play in protecting these findings through two key strategies: knowledge preservation and climate diplomacy.

First, understanding the region and its peoples—a history spanning some 12,000 years of interaction between humans and the Amazon—is essential for inclusive policies that consider valuable indigenous knowledge. The archaeological sites are a type of archive register for the last millennia of the rainforest's history and can help us understand how it should be protected. 

Nemonte Nenquimo, an indigenous woman leader and environmental defender from the Waorani community, wrote to the presidents of nine countries of the Amazon:

"You are probably not accustomed to having an indigenous woman calling you ignorant, and even less in a scenario such as this one. But to the indigenous people, one thing is clear: the less you know about something, the less you value it. [...] We took thousands of years to know the Amazon rainforest. To understand its forms, its secrets, to learn to survive and to prosper within it."

During the last few decades, research on this heritage has grown rapidly, but the destruction of the region takes place even faster. In Brazil, part of this impulse occurred due to the so-called “contract archeology,” which expanded considerably due to a 2002 federal decree requiring that companies that carry out large projects—such as dams, mining sites, and oil extraction—need to include archaeological research before the projects started. This process has led to the identification of thousands of sites, many of which have been excavated, while others have been destroyed or left untouched for future archaeological research. Archaeology in the region suffers from a paradox: much of the knowledge acquired so far is the result of an accelerated process of destruction of the archaeological heritage, occurring primarily along the southern border of the Amazon.

It was within this complex scenario that the Amazonian Archaeological Sites Network (AmazonArch) was created, in 2015, with the aim of compiling and systematizing archaeological information within a georeferenced database. The database currently contains information on more than 10,000 archaeological sites spread over an area of ​​8,682,843 km². This extensive area allows us to access a variety of archaeological sites, including those found in the transition areas between biomes. In this sense, the AmazonArch database can be a powerful tool for monitoring, management and conservation of archaeological heritage, in addition to serving the different purposes of scientific research and assisting in the defense of territories occupied by forest peoples (eg. indigenous, riverside, quilombolas, etc.).

Integrating heritage preservation into climate diplomacy

This type of data, cross-linked with spatial information on climate change, crime and violence, and large-scale infrastructure projects, can help identify sites that are at greatest risk of being destroyed, and to prioritize actions for heritage protection. However, this mapping will be of little use without meaningful action from government bodies, especially IPHAN, as well as from local authorities. Thus, awareness raising is needed among local populations, companies, and government authorities of the need to preserve archaeological sites. This awareness raising, moreover, should promote a preventive approach, rather than waiting for news of heritage destruction to break the news. 

Second, climate diplomacy has a key role to play in protecting the sites themselves. With preservation of the Amazon forest as a crucial issue for achieving global climate goals, there is a strong interest in the international climate community to address ongoing environmental damage in the region. Diplomacy can open communication channels with reluctant parties, support in mediating contentious situations and foster cooperation and multilateralism. As discouraging as the current government’s action regarding environmental preservation and mitigating climate change might be, Brazil is still an important player in the international arena. It is also highly dependent on a cooperative trade environment, particularly for the food, feed and extractive sectors, all of which have direct links to the Amazon region. Climate diplomacy has the tools for making preservation of the Amazon forest, as well as of other endangered ecosystems in Brazil, attractive. A direct example of this is how European countries are delaying support for the EU-Mercosur Trade Agreement, specifically out of concern for lacking sustainability standards and as a response to current deforestation trends.

There is also an urgent need for international cooperation for the preservation of archaeological sites in the Amazon. The United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) has been granting more attention to environmental issues and has implemented specific projects on education for sustainable development in the Amazon, and it could be more proactive in promoting heritage protection in the region, through knowledge production as well as projects arounds specific sites, in collaboration with local communities, especially indigenous ones. And this protection should also feature prominently in the frameworks and action plans of regional organizations, from the Organization of American States to the Amazon Treaty Cooperation Organization (ATCO) to the Organization of American States (OAS).  

Arrangements such as the Amazon Fund, a REDD+ mechanism financed by Norway and Germany and created to raise resources for investments to prevent deforestation and promote sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon, could also incorporate elements designed to protect archaeological heritage as a way to help curb deforestation -- if the current political impasse over how the resources can be used is overcome.

More broadly, a paradigm shift is needed to move away from the view that development and environmental/heritage conservation efforts are incompatible. This shift also entails the recognition that the protection of indigenous people must be strengthened, and that this requires, among other elements the protection of heritage. Archaeological sites, far from just repositories of the past, can also help point the way towards a more sustainable future for the Amazon basin--if they survive the current rampant deforestation.