Aguacate: pop. 570 1/2 ~ On Practicing Community Archaeology ~ by Claire

by Claire on 7.27.2011

That's what the sign says as you drive into Aguacate village. It always cracks me up a little bit; someone with a sense of humor took a permanent marker to the otherwise weathered and rusty sign. Here's some more information on Aguacate village, and my time there. I just returned this morning from several days of exploring for archaeological sites interaction? community participation? I don't know what to call the relationship that I'm trying to build with Aguacate. Technically it's called "community archaeology", but most people still don't really get what I'm trying to do. Mostly I'm just answering questions and listening - I want people to get used to having me there, to getting to know what my project is about, what exactly I'm planning on doing when I come back in January. Working with different pairs of guys and staying with different families has made it possible for me to talk to new people with each visit.
For example, Alejandro, the guy whose house I was eating at this time (I stay with one family and eat with another), asked about January, how many people I would be hiring, etc. And he asked what was the most important thing that Aguacate could do for me. Seeing a perfect opportunity, I said that the most important thing was to make sure the sites that I'd been visiting didn't get looted. He sort of smiled, because that wasn't what he was expecting, I think. I explained that if I come back and there are new holes in all of the sites, that I have to go somewhere else, leaving people without work. Most of the mounds that I've seen have at least one looter's hole in them, but some holes really aren't very big, and people have disregarded the smaller mounds entirely, most likely because they don't perceive them as important enough to have any jade.
There is an understandable but disproportionate value placed on jade here - everyone has heard a story about someone in the next village over finding jade, selling it to a tourist and getting rich. The reality is that even if they did find a polychrome pot, or a piece of carved jade, they would sell it for a fraction of what the middleman would get, not to mention the art dealer/auction house/ebay seller. The sites I'm interested in, and the kind surrounding Aguacate, are smaller households that most likely will not have anything fancy enough to interest big spenders. Furthermore, looting and the antiquities market are closely tied to narcotics trafficking in Central America and Mexico. In case you haven't heard how that is turning out for local farmers, read this.

Anyways, as much as I tell everyone that I'm not looking for jade, I still worry that I'm going to come back in January to a bunch of looted sites. But, I've been preaching the conservation ethic while I'm there, so we'll see if it works! There are a lot of tricky ethical issues here (such as, archaeologists placing an overwhelming value on jade in the first place!) but I will get off my soapbox for now and tell you about the last few days.

I stayed with the Choc family, whose land I've been trying to get on since March. There is a mound in his cattle pasture that you can see from the road, but he won't let me check it out. Technically, he is on community land, and others that I've talked to are surprised that he can keep me from going there since the whole community agreed to work with me; I'm not going to push it. Anyways, his family was nice and welcoming, though the kids were much more
annoying than my last visit. They're just curious, but when I arrived I was just in no mood to be stared at, poked, and followed around.
On Thursday we explored the low hills behind the village, some of which I'd been up before. There is one badly looted sites up there that I'd seen, and this week I saw one more possibility. I would love to dig test pits along those hills, since I suspect that there are low-lying mounds and middens (ancient trash deposits) there, including under some modern houses. Here's some evidence of that:

This is a metate that Mr. Hun found when he was digging a drain next to his house (those are his kids). It's a beautiful, well-worn metate that may be historic and not ancient, it's hard to tell. Still, it means that people have been living here for awhile! (His wife offered to sell this to us, by the way).

Here's a view of the village from the hilltop:

It poured rain all morning, but my attitude is, once you're wet, you're wet. Around late morningit started to get sunny, which felt amazing. We took a long walk out to an overgrown field and bushwacked to the base of this pretty isolated little hill. There were 2-3 small mounds on top, with looters pits, but also some interesting sherds and paving stones. I got kind of beat up that day - I slipped on a root and slammed the side of my thigh into a tree stump. It hurt while I was hiking but I didn't really think about it until I went to bathe in the river that evening and saw the bright purple bruise. Yikes. And then I stupidly disturbed a wasps' nest on top of one of the hills and got stung 5 times - once in the thigh (the other thigh) and 4 times on my left hand. It seriously hurt, and my middle finger and the back of my hand were grotesquely swollen - I really should have taken a picture of that. It's ok now though, just really itchy. In addition to the injuries, Thursday ended up being a long, hot afternoon; consequently I got the best night of sleep I'd had in over a month. When my hosts turned the lights out at 8:30, I was a goner.

On Friday Juan and Salvador took me down a farmer's road past one site that I'd already visited. We climbed a really steep hill that hadn't been cleared recently so it was covered in what they call "high bush" - large tropical trees and palms with not as much undergrowth. Just when I was getting frustrated and expecting nothing but a rocky outcrop for the effort, we arrived at the summit to find a good-sized mound, I'd say about 5 meters in height. It had a looter's pit in the back corner, but was relatively intact. There were two more small mounds on the summit of the hill that hadn't been touched. Here's a picture of the looter's pit:
I know it's really hard to see, which is why I'm not posting a lot of pictures this time! Mybackpack is sitting on a ledge where they dug a second pit. You're looking straight at the pit, where they've dismantled one corner of the building, which continues to the right of the photo. The hill drops off dramatically to the left, and from where I was precariously standing.

After taking pictures and drawing some sherds I found in the looter's pit, we hiked down the hill, where my guide, Juan, said there were two more small mounds. The first one was built against the steep hillside, with a small flat corridor separating it from the second mound. A huge retaining wall was built to support the second mound. It seems that there is also a modified terrace at the base of the retaining wall, that may have a small mound. This was the most exciting place I'd been - a minimally looted, multi-component site down the road from two other smaller, but unlooted, sites.
Finally, we stopped by this hill (the one in the middle distance with palms on it) that had two structures, one on the top and one on the side of the hill. Can you see Salvador chopping his way through the bush? Gives you an idea of what it's like to hike during the rainy season.

All in all, I had a very successful two days. I have now seen pretty much all there is to see right around the village (besides that damn cattle pasture!) plus two that are farther away. Of course, now that I'm leaving everyone has another site to show me, but mostly they are about an hour's walk away so I think I'll save those for the dry season. My goal this summer was to find sites that fulfill my research goals (households in this corridor that can tell me about daily life and sociopolitical identity in the past) and are convenient for the field school (ideally close to a road, not across the river with no bridge, etc.). After this trip, I feel satisfied with what I've seen, so now I'm back in PG for the next few days. I have some other logistical tasks in and around PG to take care of before I leave - such as getting back to Tumul K'in to talk to a carpenter about building shelves for the lab.

I have other thoughts and stories about my time in Aguacate, so I think I'll keep posting this week. During the first week of August Anna is coming down to PG (she's doing dissertation research in San Ignacio, 3 hours north of here) and we are going on a week-long Birthday Extravaganza to Guatemala! We have a loose itinerary, but the trip will undoubtedly include chicken buses, markets, volcanic lakes, colonial towns, and beer other than Belikin. Doug will be traveling with us, as is our friend Mark, a fellow archaeologist who shares the awesome birthday that is August 8th. Stay tuned for pictures from the Birthday Extravaganza!!!!!!

Recycled Minds guest columnist, Claire, is an Anthropology PhD student studying Maya archaeology. She is currently putting together a dissertation project in the Toledo district of southern Belize. You can read more about her research at her blog: Ma'alob K'iin! Incidents of Travel in Mexico and Belize

African Land Grabbing

by douglas reeser on 7.24.2011

We were a little slow to pick this up - the following press release was sent out in June - but the information provides a quite shocking development in Africa that may have repercussions for millions of people in Africa and globally - and it's all about food. From the Oakland Institute, an independent think tank that tackles pressing social, economic, and environmental issues, comes the following:

Hedge Funds Create Volatility in Global Food Supply with Land Grabs Across Africa
Financial backers – including U.S universities and pension funds – are lured by high returns and turn a blind eye to theft of land, displacement of people

Oakland, CA – Hedge funds and other foreign speculators are increasing price volatility and supply insecurity in the global food system, according to a series of investigative reports released today by the Oakland Institute. The reports are based on the actual materials from these land deals and include investigation of investors, purchase contracts, business plans and maps never released before now.
The “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa” reports also reveal that these largely unregulated land purchases are resulting in virtually none of the promised benefits for native populations, but instead are forcing millions of small farmers off ancestral lands and small, local food farms in order to make room for export commodities, including biofuels and cut flowers.

“The same financial firms that drove us into a global recession by inflating the real estate bubble through risky financial maneuvers are now doing the same with the world’s food supply,” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute. “In Africa this is resulting in the displacement of small farmers, environmental devastation, water loss and further political instability such as the food riots that preceded the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.”

Mittal added that for people living in developed countries, the conversion of African small farms and forests into a natural-asset-based, high-return investment strategy can drive up food prices and increase the risks of climate change.

“The research exposed investors who said it’s easy to make a land deal – that they could usually get what they want in exchange for giving a poor, tribal chief a bottle of Johnny Walker,” Mittal said. “When these investors promise progress and jobs to local chiefs, it sounds great – but they don’t deliver, which means no progress and relocating people from their homes.”

New reports and materials on these deals examine on-the-ground implications in several African nations including Ethiopia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Tanzania and South Sudan – and expose contracts that connect land grabs back to institutional investors in these nations and others. In addition to publicly sharing – for the first time -- the paperwork behind these deals, the reports demonstrate how common land grabs are and how quickly this phenomenon is taking place. Investors in these deals include not only alternative investment firms like Emergent Asset Management – that works to attract speculators, but also universities including Harvard, Spellman and Vanderbilt.

Contracts also reveal a bonanza of incentives for speculators ranging from unlimited water rights to tax waivers. “No one should believe that these investors are there to feed starving Africans, create jobs or improve food security, Obang Metho of Solidarity Movement for New Ethiopia said. “These land grab agreements – many of which could be in place for 99 years – do not mean progress for local people and will not lead to food in their stomachs. These deals lead only to dollars in the pockets of corrupt leaders and foreign investors.”

In 2009 alone nearly 60 million hectares – an area the size of France – was purchased or leased in these land grabs. Most of these deals are characterized by a lack of transparency, despite the profound implications posed by the consolidation of control over global food markets and agricultural resources by financial firms.

“We have seen cases of speculators taking over agricultural land while small farmers, viewed as “squatters” are forcibly removed with no compensation,” said Frederic Mousseau, policy director at the Oakland Institute. “This is creating insecurity in the global food system that could be a much bigger threat to global security than terrorism. More than one billion people around the world are living with hunger. The majority of the world’s poor still depend on small farms for their livelihoods, and speculators are taking these away while promising progress that never happens.”

These reports, as well as briefs on other aspects of land grabs, are available at
Photo of farmland in Congo thanks to

Cheating the System

by Lana Lynne on 7.21.2011

A few weeks ago, the school cheating scandal in Atlanta, Georgia, made headlines around the country with the revelation that 178 teachers and principals had been involved in altering test scores and conducting cover-ups to achieve high ratings on the standardized test known as the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, results of which can be directly tied to teacher evaluations, bonuses, school funding and more. Although the largest, the Atlanta scandal is just one of dozens of similar allegations recently made throughout the country.

What many critics have been saying is that these scandals lay bare the risks of depending on high-stakes testing. When faced with the public shame of being a "failing" school or tying salaries to achievement, it turns out that people will do what it takes to stay afloat. A Slate article published today details these problems with incentivized testing, concluding, "When laws incentivize bad behavior, it's a good time to reconsider public policy, not to double down on it. ...The problem isn't the tests. But the problem is the carrots and sticks tied to them, which put too much emphasis on judging teachers and schools, and not enough on offering kids better instruction."

Although I'm of the camp that believes that the tests are indeed part of the problem (the most simplistic reason being that one method of testing can not begin to cover the wide range of learning styles), it's clear that the reward system is not working. As Noam Chomsky said in an interview about education, "There's a major attack on public education going on everywhere, which is shifting the nature of the educational system towards test passing, obedience, discipline, cutting back individual initiative and so on."

Another problem looming large behind these spate of cheating scandals (which the Slate article points out is not the first such run) is the effect of states' budget cuts to education. Take Berks County, Pennsylvania, for example. Evidently, under Governor Corbett's budget plan, the poorest school district in the county (Reading) will receive $11.9 million less than last year, which is the severest cut in the entire county. In Philadelphia county, schools will lose $300 million. With budget cuts, schools lose teachers, classes grow in size, after-school programs are eliminated, and so on. In this cutthroat climate, it appears that students are indeed the ones being left behind.

Image from

Japanese Music in Belize

by douglas reeser on 7.15.2011

I recently had the pleasure of attending a special "Sushi Night" at Earth Runnin's Bukut Bar in Punta Gorda, Belize. It was definitely the first ever sushi night at Earth Runnin's, and we think it was probably the first ever in Punta Gorda.

There are a number of volunteers here from JICA, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, a Peace Corps-like organization based in Japan. Volunteers are in Belize working on a variety of projects for varying lengths of time. For instance, two people I met have been here for two years teaching computer technology in the primary school. Others are volunteering with the Belize Ministry of Health, working on vector control, specifically documenting chagas disease.

On this night at Earth Runnin's, a bunch of JICA volunteers rented out the kitchen to prepare a number of Japanese noodle dishes and sushi rolls. Giovani, the owner of the restaurant, bought some fresh caught mackerel, and served sashimi. Two girls came in traditional garb from Japan, and one, Gumi, brought a Shamisen - a traditional Japanese guitar - and played and sang for those of us lucky to be there.

Check out this video, unusual largely because it was filmed in southern Belize!

The Great Front-Yard Vegetable Garden Controversy

by douglas carl reeser on 7.10.2011

Making its rounds on the twitter feeds of various foodies and a few food-related listservs is the news of a family in Oak Park, Michigan that is in some trouble with local authorities for planting a vegetable garden in their front yard. The family put in the vegetable garden after work on an underground pipe required that they rip up their front yard. Instead of replanting with grass, they put in the garden to grow some food for their meals and to use in the education of their six children about food and where it comes from.

According to city officials, a number of neighbors have complained about the garden, which does violate neighborhood ordinances that "regulate the aesthetics of the community". One city planner has been quoted as saying: "I don't know of any community where I have seen a full garden in the front yard. In planning and zoning, we try and put things in appropriate places." This raises the question of what exactly is an "appropriate" place for a vegetable garden? Must food production be hidden from view? Do gardens belong in the city? in the suburbs? Should they be in greenhouses? The idea that there is such an appropriate place - besides where vegetables will best grow and produce - is ill-concieved at best.

The story is not yet complete, as the family has their court date, and the wide coverage of the story has led to an outpouring of support for the family, and protest against the city. An online petition is being circulated, and as of this writing, has nearly 17,000 signatures from around the globe. In these difficult economic times, and when the food available in the supermarket can not always be trusted, is the regulation of vegetable gardens such a good idea? Such gardens violate community ordinances around the country, so this may be just the first of such battles.

Or better yet, plant some vegetables in your front yard as a message of solidarity!

Photo courtesy of the Gannon Garden @

Views from the ANThill: Humans, Power and Fairness

by douglas c reeser on 7.8.11
During the process of fieldwork, there is always present the innumerable conversations that have little or nothing to do with your actual research focus. Such conversations are in integral part of settling into your research community and building rapport with the people and places in which you are spending your time. During the first month or so here in Belize, I have had many such discussions.
One example occurred with a potential research partner while I was on my way into town for lunch one day. I was walking along, passing the home and business of a couple with whom I hope to work, and the wife yelled out a greeting. I walked over and chatted with her about some work on local food recipes that I offered to help with. Her husband was nearby, working on a large carving with a friend. He too called me over, and as I helped with some sanding, we began to chat about a variety of things.
One topic struck me as especially interesting. My friend asked, “Do you think America is going to come back?” It was a question somewhat out of the blue, as we weren’t talking about the U.S. specifically. I pondered his querry for a moment, and then responded that I wish the country could once again become a “good country. Not a great country, but a good one.” This was well received, and the three of us went on to talk about the possibilities that might exist if the U.S. dispersed its power and worked as partners with others, as opposed to the current track of using its power to control others. We were getting at the difference between the concept of “power with” versus “power over”.

Žižek & Assange in Conversation

by douglas reeser on 7.5.11

Check out this conversation, moderated by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange - two of "the most dangerous people in the world". Amy Goodman says it nicely: "Information is Power. Information can be a matter between life and death."

Watch and/or listen here:

Consumption Junction: The Pursuit of Happiness

by Lana Lynne on 7.3.11

Complicity hath reached a new level, dear patriots. A recent study published in the journal Psychology and Marketing looked at the practice of retail therapy, whereby advertisers promote the happiness quotient of products, and consumers buy things to make themselves feel better. Through surveys and diary-keeping, the study found that the negative mood that prompts a therapeutic retail excursion is indeed improved -- whether from the subject having followed through with a purchase or from the subject having exercised restraint from purchasing (the strategy for mood-lifting depended on the individual's rules for him- or herself).

The widespread recognition and exploitation of the therapeutic value of material consumption dates back to the early days of national advertising at the turn of the last century. Advertisements became suffused with health and anxiety, and consumerism usurped the non-material values of religion. With consumer-capitalism as our only moral compass, we find ourselves in today's hyper-anxious culture of consumption, where advertisers no longer need to convince people of retail therapy. We've become complicit in our own marketing.

No less depressing is the idea that the study will be touted as a cure for the ailing economy, much like George W. Bush's urging to "go shopping" after 9/11. The Daily Mail's somewhat desperate headline (is it the "really does"?) says it all: "Feeling Sad? Go Shopping Because it Really Does Make You Happier, say Psychologists." It doth appear we have internalized those advertising gimmicks of yesteryear.