This study addresses the topic of conservation of archaeological heritage in Mexico, the manner and context in which it has developed, its relationship with government institutions, and very specifically the identification of social elements or actors in the processes of destruction or conservation which affect this collective resource. I decided to bundle in this work both the analysis of various aspects of current issues in conservation and the preparation of a proposal to study the management of archaeological resources in a systematic manner at the national level. This stems essentially from reflections both theoretical and practical which emerge from a professional life developed within institutional or "official" archaeology in Mexico. From this flows a need and urge to set the topic in an appropriate academic context.
These reflections flow from settings of serious danger and frustration experienced in the field while trying to put in practice an array of institutional programs, projects, and assignments which have as a common objective the official version of archaeological heritage conservation. In effect I argue here the traditional manner of addressing the conservation of this heritage is inadequate and obsolete, essentially an ongoing process of improvisation to address the conflict-laden character of the social circumstances which envelop Mexico's cultural heritage. The institutional structure charged by law with the conservation of archaeological monuments has demonstrated on repeated occasions its inadequacy to complete its objective. This is attributable to a series of fundamental contradictions which exist between the formal practice of archaeology and the political reality in which it, as an institution, is imbedded.
The State, on the other hand, shows us a treatment of cultural issues which is far from homogeneous. It appears almost as an aggregation of nearly-autonomous institutions, each struggling to move forward with its priorities for the six-year presidential term without giving much thought to the integrating mechanisms which ought to exist in relation to collective resources.
At the academic level one notes a failure in the preparation of specialists. While archaeologists sooner or later confront the need to conserve archaeological heritage on the basis of law, paradoxically they do not receive the minimal training in the government universities which permits them to discharge this specialized function. The result is that until now all of this happens outside ant clear set of rules and without an explicit institutional policy which goes beyond the obeying the interests of a State currently characterized by a neoliberal stance, within which cultural heritage is considered a simple commodity for consumption.
The importance of this study lies in the fact that it is an innovation in the way in which archaeological preservation is seen as part of a broader system of resource conservation, and from this springs a proposal to create in a formal manner the field of Archaeological Resources Management in Mexico. This is separate in theory and practice from the science of archaeology, although they may interact closely according to the circumstances of a particular case. This new field becomes in effect a specialization for those with professional training in archaeology, architecture, anthropology, or other fields which can be linked with the conservation of cultural heritage.
This study is based on a comparative analysis of the issue of destruction of cultural resources which confront Monte Alban and Mitla, the two most important archaeological sites in the Oaxaca Valley of southern Mexico. This importance, while in some measure related to the fundamental role the sites played in the cultural development of the area, today stems from the attention they receive from the mass public as a tourist attraction as a consequence of their exploration and reconstruction at the start of two critical periods in Mexican archaeology. While the status of bring open to the public is not a uniform condition for the archaeological heritage of the country, it can be considered representative of a current policy tendency toward cultural heritage, which is to exploit and overexploit the aesthetic attractions of the sites as a commodity to generate income for the national treasury. This, however, does not take into account the variety of interests among communities and individuals whose lands are overlapped by the pre-Columbian sites, and without taking into account the differing perceptions archaeological remains generate among differing populations.
Therefore across this study I try to demonstrate how different interests converge on the same object the interests of different actors. For one actor it may be academic preservation; for government it might be policies which legitimize overexploitation of the resource; and for others, the disagreement of the communities which, drawing on diverse ways to resist, display a willingness to engage in drawn-out litigation in order to defend their right to exploit resources yielded by cultivation or extractive activities. The object of everyone's attention is the archaeological zone, which must bear the pressures generated by all social groups for which it has some significance. This is the reason I propose the task of protecting the archaeological heritage—which today is a task which rests on the shoulders of government archaeologists with little or no training—should in reality be considered within the context of a specialty focusing on the management of archaeological resources. That is, within a broad conceptualization of conservation of resources within the country there needs to be a strategy which assigns a sustainable value to this kind of non-renewable resource.
This kind of study in the field of anthropology can be justified as the central issue surrounding the resources which concern us are the human settlements, one in certain ways a traditional Zapotec community and the other part of the suburbs of the city of Oaxaca. Both represent challenges at two levels. First, we need to understand the origins of the distress caused the communities by the presence and decision-making processes of government agencies such as the National Institute of Anthropology and History in relation to resources the communities consider theirs. Second, we need to understand their organizational capacity to form groups in defense of their interests and their willingness to pursue inter-generational struggles to secure those interests. We need to have an academic capacity to understand both levels as a means of developing real alternatives in the form of participative solutions between communities and the State. These solutions stress the importance of educational processes and the general of income. Without losing sight of the importance of conservation, the new specialist needs to be able to respond effectively to the needs of and for the tourist visit. The new specialist needs to understand the importance of and mechanisms to educate communities. And above all, it is vital to foster the active and responsible participation of the owners in the processes or exploitation as well as conservation of the archaeological resources they consider to be theirs.
As the government currently shows little capacity to resolve severe problems of destruction attributable to diverse agents in the archaeological sites, the alternatives proposed here to deal with the central social problems require specialists trained in the humanities and prepared to recognize different kinds of conflicts and the actors who create them. And these new professionals must at the same time explore the possibility of promoting organizational change within the institution charged with cultural heritage preservation. They will need to address the dual challenges of controlling overexploitation on the one hand while on the other responding to the extreme poverty of the original population. If there is not a serious rethinking of the traditional foci of archaeological heritage conservation, developing on the basis of its experience a new approach to the Mexican School of Archaeology, we will pay a high price. That price will be to participate in the creation of commercial projects in which the remains in some of the monumental archaeological zones serve only as a backdrop for the indiscriminate commercialization of Mexican culture.