A Call for Transformation: Dismantling Extractive Partnerships

A Call for Transformation: Dismantling Extractive Partnerships

After introducing my call for transformation within museums and the wider academic-industrial complex, and presenting the first part of my call, ending the myth of neutrality, I am writing to explain the second component of my call for transformation:

dismantle partnerships with agencies and corporations that exploit people and the earth.

Caring about people and the earth is not only part of the work of anthropologists and archaeologists, but should be part of our lives without the need for approbation by any discipline or profession. There is a long list of partnerships and collaborations within our discipline that validate and advance the exploitation of people and the earth. This part of the call is to name such partnerships and recognize their consequences, and then end them, while seeking collaborations that promote more equitable futures.

An urgent example is the partnership between the Smithsonian and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), where museum conservators and other professionals have trained Department of Homeland Security/ICE agents since 2009 in the identification and treatment of artifacts that enter the US under illicit circumstances [note: links to PDF download]. The stated goal is to work towards curbing the illicit antiquities trade by seizing and caring for artifacts. It is clear that the network of humanities professionals participating in this collaboration extends beyond the Smithsonian.

Protestors in San Francisco, CA demand the abolition of ICE in June 2018. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the central concerns in this case is the prioritization of objects over people. What are the consequences of ICE’s seizure of the artifacts for the people carrying them across the US border? Moreover, how can we endorse any form of collaboration with ICE given its active dehumanization of refugees for years, more widely recognized in the last few years? Yes, silence or a stance of neutrality is endorsement. Furthermore, how can scholars have good conscience when they effectively validate the detainment and deportation of people from places and communities that they “study” and therefore profit from in their daily professional practice? Last month, several colleagues and I wrote to Jessica Johnson and Rae Beaubien, who spearheaded the program, to ask whether the collaboration continues today—particularly in light of egregious human rights violations. We were told, implicitly, that the collaboration continues. The response characterized the partnerships as a way in which Smithsonian staff can offer their knowledge to a broader professional community. This is a wonderful goal for academics but not when that community is within an agency actively terrorizing people. It seems that Smithsonian staff and other museum workers who participate in this program place institutional and personal profit along with “professional goals” (including sharing professional knowledge and caring for objects) ahead of the basic human rights of others.

In short, I urge academics and museum workers to refuse to participate as experts in this collaboration with ICE. Participation is complicity in human rights violations. Instead of participating, why not leverage the power of the Smithsonian and other institutions to decry ICE’s terrorizing practices and work to abolish it? ICE, as an institution, is not necessary, and its abolition can be a first step towards a radically different immigration system, one without detention and deportation, as described by Caitlin Bellis, a fellow at the UC Irvine Immigrant Rights Clinic, and advanced by the organization Mijente [note: links to PDF download]. Furthermore, while some may see the Smithsonian practice of collecting drawings from young people who are imprisoned in ICE facilities as noble, how is the institution working to transform the conditions that these young people are enduring? In this effort to gather drawings, the Smithsonian claims to be motivated by a desire to narrate the “complex and complicated history of the United States,” language which is strikingly neutral. This relates to the first part of my call for transformation—to end the myth of neutrality and to take sides. “Complex” conceals genocide. “Complicated” covers human rights abuses. The Smithsonian also explains that this project will allow people to “understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future.” We already have made sense of the present—there is terror and trauma for many people, and urgent action is needed. The “humane future” is now; there is no waiting for it. I urge the Smithsonian, which is, yes, a government agency, like ICE, along with other museums and academic institutions to wield their power and their cultural capital to demand the abolition of ICE and the end of detention and deportation of people who have immigrated to the US.

It is now well known that the Amazon corporation supports ICE in its efforts to terrorize and harm people. Around a year ago, Teresa Carlson, a vice president at Amazon, pledged the corporation would offer its services to police and military in the US without fail. Carlson also admitted there was uncertainty over all the ways in which US government agencies were using the technologies Amazon provides. What if, like the brave workers at Amazon and Wayfair have organized, there were explicit demands to leadership and work stoppages by Smithsonian employees and other museum, anthropology, and archaeology professionals to protest this thriving collaboration between people in our disciplines and ICE?

In Shakopee, Minnesota, Amazon staff protest their working conditions in December 2018. (Source: Fibonacci Blue/Creative Commons)

I also refer to Amazon to inform or remind readers that, since 2015, the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) has maintained a partnership with Amazon. Like other organizations, the SAA partners with Amazon through the seemingly harmless “Amazon Smile” program, where a minuscule fraction of certain purchases someone makes at Amazon goes towards supporting the SAA. In addition to collaboration with ICE and the wider US military-industrial complex, Amazon is known for the suffering and abuse its workers endure. In 2015, several colleagues and I wrote Diane Gifford-Gonzalez, SAA’s president at the time, to request that the organization dismantle this partnership. Gifford-Gonzalez replied, explaining that the SAA Board refused to end the collaboration, and that they wanted to allow SAA members to make the individual decision of supporting Amazon or not. In my view, we have this decision available to us—though it has become exceedingly challenging to escape daily entanglement with Amazon—whether or not we are SAA members, so the Board’s point about decision-making is moot. The Board’s response further explained that the partnership with Amazon allowed the SAA to push forward its mission and to support itself financially. However, organizations receive relatively minimal financial gains from partnering with Amazon through the Amazon Smile program. My colleagues and I responded that the welfare of archaeologists is inherently connected to the welfare of Amazon workers, and, as paying members of the SAA at the time, we requested to see the SAA’s financial returns from the partnership. We then received a reply that the SAA does not discuss social concerns, and that the issue was shut. In turn, we encouraged a boycott of the SAA, and this boycott was supported by The Former and Current Employees of Amazon. Yet again, what if the SAA leveraged their institutional power to draw attention to Amazon’s harmful practices, announcing an end to involvement in the Amazon Smile program?

Finally, I want to draw attention to partnerships between endeavors in the humanities and extractive industries. First, part of the very disciplinary fabric of archaeometallurgy, which was my specialization in archaeology, is rooted in the alignment of academia with extractive industries. The website of the Institute for Archaeo-Metallurgical Studies (IAMS) at UCL, where I studied, notes that some of the earliest research in the discipline was at the site of Timna in Israel in the 1960s. This archaeological work emerged through collaboration with Rio Tinto Zinc Co., now part of the Rio Tinto Group. We recognize today that Rio Tinto has inflicted significant damage on a range of peoples and their wider environments. In 1989, local communities compelled Rio Tinto to close its Panguna mine in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea because of the environmental destruction it wrought. In 2010, Rio Tinto locked out workers at its California borax mine. In 2013, protestors made it clear that Rio Tinto was harming an ecosystem in Mongolia that indigenous communities depend on. While the origins of IAMS and archaeometallurgy preceded these events, to what extend did Rio Tinto recognize how its extractive aims were intertwined with the promise of this new discipline and research? Surely, validating the mining history of a place could help any mining corporation to illustrate that “mining has long been present here” or whatever narrative may be suitable to the corporation’s business interests but not necessarily beneficial to local communities. In turn, to what extent did archaeologists and archaeometallurgists voice concern over this entanglement? It is disappointing that, even after the harm inflicted by Rio Tinto was clearly documented time after time, institutions—including UCL—are still partnering with this corporation to advance archaeological projects. In short, why does the study of past extraction necessitate participation with agencies that promote intensive extraction in the present?

In October 2015, Samuel Arregoces from Tabaco, La Guajira, Colombia and Danilo Urrea from CENSAT (Friends of the Earth Colombia) campaign to urge the Scottish Parliament to divest from BHP Billiton, which co-owns the Cerrejón mine. (Source: Colin Hattersley/FOES)

In 2010, it was announced that the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Florida Museum of Natural History identified a new turtle species. Researchers discovered fossils in the coal mine of Cerrejón in La Guajira, Colombia. Since the 1980s, this mine, the largest coal mine in Latin America, has caused severe harm to the lifeways of Wayúu and Afro-Colombian peoples living in this region. In particular, the mine drastically reduces the water available to local communities. So why are scientists validating the existence of this mine by conducting research within it? To what extent are they also advancing harm? It is disturbing that the Smithsonian Insider article makes no mention of the human and environmental rights abuses perpetuated by this mine for decades; and that it omits and thus silences the presence of local communities, who resist the mine through organizations like Fuerza de Mujeres Wayúu and through international divestment campaigns. Indeed, the article only refers to local peoples when describing the name of the newly identified turtle species, Cerrejonemys wayuunaiki, which tragically juxtaposes the name of the mine with the name of the Wayúu language. Of course, discussing the atrocities of the Cerrejón mine or describing the resistance of communities poses a threat to the research—and thus the careers and livelihoods—of the scientists.

In San Francisco, CA, in November 2016, protestors demand the protection of the water and land of the Standing Rock Reservation and campaign against the Dakota Access pipeline. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

My last example demonstrates how partnerships between the academic-industrial complex and extractive industries appear blatantly contradictory. During my tenure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I contributed to the catalogue of a recent exhibition, Golden Kingdoms, which was shown first at the Getty Museum and then at the Met. The exhibition documented a range of archaeological materials, from feathers to greenstone to metal, from the Americas. A short blurb on the back cover of the catalogue states that the understandings of objects presented in Golden Kingdoms “reflect the value systems of indigenous cultures.” Seeing the name of Bank of America in the exhibition catalogue left me puzzled. The bank was a “presenting sponsor” of the exhibition and wider Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA project of which Golden Kingdoms was a part. Bank of America helped fund the Dakota Access pipeline, which threatens the lifeways of local Sioux tribes. So, how can a project be in tune with “value systems of indigenous cultures” when it is financially supported by a corporation that was working to harm indigenous cultures? Curators cannot somehow separate the content of the catalogue from its context. While that same back cover paragraph suggests the catalogue writers offer a “radical reinterpretation” of the objects, I would advocate for a “radical reinterpretation” of mainstream exhibitions such as this. I would like to see new methods that are truly “radical”—that is, to the roots—that care for those literal roots in the earth, rather than damage them through partnerships with extractive corporations and agencies. One departure point could be an entire re-evaluation of the financial sponsors that these institutions have relied on and an avowal to move forward by fundraising without the involvement of such extractive partners. In other words, I would propose a thorough process of divestment. Indeed, a divestment campaign likely influenced the departure of David Koch from the board of the American Museum of Natural History. The work and the scholarship can still exist without these collaborations, and I propose it can be enriched while disavowing corporate interests and forming new collaborations that empower people and nurture the earth. Another departure point is the work of archaeologists at UC Berkeley (full disclosure: I am an alumnus), including Kent Lightfoot and Sara Gonzalez, who advocate for low-impact methods of archaeological fieldwork that center community involvement and negotiation. This approach can be extended to the context of research—to the decision-making around sponsors and funding—the goal being to minimize the physical, not to mention the emotional and cultural, impact on local communities and on the earth.

Ahdaf Soueif recently wrote about her choice to leave the Board of Trustees of the British Museum. Soueif expressed her frustration at the continued partnership of the Museum with British Petroleum. She questioned why this institution whose collections are a testament to human creativity—while the museum is also a hallmark of imperialism—collaborates with an agency actively making our world uninhabitable. Soueif argues that the collections are a tool for positively shaping the future and that the museum is in a position to advocate for change. Her words deserve close attention by museums and academic institutions.

These questions are also central: as academics, museum workers, archaeologists, and archaeometallurgists, as humanists and humans—who have collective power through our organizations—what do we now do with the knowledge that has been available to us for years that shows the destructive effects of agencies and corporations like ICE, Amazon, Rio Tinto, Cerrejón, and Bank of America? How do we document resistance to these destructive actions—because, yes, existence is resistance, to use a rallying point of movements for Palestinian liberation, and the young people drawing their imprisonment are simultaneously resisting it even while the Smithsonian is describing their actions in neutral (and thus harmful) language? And, then, how do we work in solidarity with existing organizations that defend land, water, and the rights of indigenous peoples, workers, and other directly impacted communities to advance their and our liberations?

We are part of the academic-industrial complex, and we are armed with the knowledge of harm that has been committed, yet what do we do with this knowledge? How do we act to reduce harm, repair relationships, and renew and cultivate beautiful, thriving communities? It is a tragic irony to witness people with remarkable academic pedigrees, and with access to abundant information, choosing to stay the course and perpetuate harm through the collaborations they pursue. We do have the position and power to change things around.

I acknowledge the generous support of Di Hu, who pointed me to the Smithsonian’s collecting of drawings by children who are incarcerated, and to the statement by Ahdaf Soueif.