, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 367-374

Whose forest? Whose land? Whose Ruins? Ethics and conservation

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The stakes are very high in many struggles over cultural property, not only because the property is itself valuable, but also because property rights of many kinds hinge on cultural identity. However, the language of property rights and possession, and the standards for establishing cultural rights, is founded in antiquated and essentialized concepts of cultural continuity and cultural purity. As cultural property and culturally-defined rights become increasingly valuable in the global marketplace, disputes over ownership and management are becoming more and more intense. Using the example of a recent lawsuit over logging on Mayan Indian reservations in the Central American country of Belize, this paper argues that cultural essentialist positions are no longer tenable. Assigning exclusive ownership of globally important resources to any group or entity on purely cultural grounds is likely to prolong conflict instead of creating workable management structures. The author instead advocates a concept of “stakeholding” which acknowledges the legitimate interests of diverse individuals and groups.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at a symposium entitled “Ethics in Science: Special Problems in Anthropology and Archaeology” held at the 1998 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Philadelphia, PA, 15 February, 1998.