On my recent trip to Tifariti (in the Polisario-controlled “Free Zone” of Western Sahara), I made an excursion to Rekeiz Lemgassem, one of the rock art sites that has suffered significant damage as a result of vandalism by foreign visitors, local people, and UN staff from the MINURSO peacekeeping mission (1). Things had changed since I last visited the site in late 2006, before the furore over vandalism by MINURSO personnel erupted. As a result of this scandal MINURSO had erected signs at Lajuad and Rekeiz Lemgassem, the two sites where damage has been most extensive (see an earlier post). What was new this time was the presence of a Polisario checkpoint at the approach to the Rekeiz Lemgassem, in order to control access to the site. Anyone visiting the rock art here must now obtain a permit from Tifariti in advance, and must be accompanied around the site by a guide.
These practical measures to protect the site – put in place by the Polisario government – are complemented by more symbolic measures, namely the declaration of the area around Rekeiz Lemgassem as an archaeological park and promises to protect the site in law, as stated on the sign pictured above, which was erected on the day of my visit near to the MINURSO sign which was put in place earlier in the year. What this means in practice is debatable – the practical steps of controlling access and preventing people from wanderning around by themselves are likely to have the biggest impact. I suspect that the Polisario sign is at least in part a response to the MINURSO sign, which was put up unilaterally (MINURSO have to tread carefully and can not be seen to endorse the Polisario as any kind of “official” governing authority, so joint declarations with the Polisario as the government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic are out) (2). Presumably this is an attempt by Polisario to take the initiative and declare and/or demonstrate ownership over the cultural heritage of the Free Zone.
Politically-motivated or not, any measures on the part of Polisario to protect archaeological sites and to take responsibility for the preservation of cultural heritage can only be welcomed. One thing that became clear during my time in Tifariti and at the cultural festival in Auserd is that the scandal over the MINURSO vandalism was big news, and did a lot to raise awareness of Western Sahara’s incredibly rich prehistoric archaeology among the Sahrawi in the camps. People who might not have given any previous thought to the issue of archaeological heritage were angry about the actions of MINURSO personnel, and this appears to have stimulated a wider sense of ownership over the territory’s prehistoric heritage. This may be the point at which prehistoric archaeology becomes important in the Sahrawi’s national self-image, and we might be seeing the beginning of a process in which archaeology plays a role in national identity, and nationalism generally, as has happened in so many other countries.
Archaeologists may ask themselves whether this is a welcome development. Archaeology and politics do not always mix well, particularly from the point of view of academic research. However, archaeology and politics have a tendency to become enmeshed with one another despite the best efforts of archaeologists, and the chances that archaeology can remain untouched by politics in such a contested territory as Western Sahara are, well, nil. That is, unless those of us doing the research keep it secret and withhold all our findings from the Sahrawi, which in itself would be unethical, not to mention impractical.
The main challenge now is to avoid the politicisation of the interpretation of the archaeological record. So far this hasn’t been a problem – the Polisario know that they can make political capital out of the archaeology, and are manifestly doing so as the above actions illustrate. However, so far there is no indication that they see archaeology as a means of illustrating historical “rights” to land, which is the point at which a certain substance usually tends to hit the fan.
So far, so good. It appears that for the archaeological heritage to be protected it must demonstrate its relevance to today’s concerns – protection in exchange for publicity value and potential to demonstrate stewardship over heritage and, by extension, territory. As long as archaeologists are free to ask their own research questions and develop their own interpretations of the the archaeological record, this should be a deal we can live with.
(1) For an inventory of damage to rock art sites in the Free Zone cause by staff from the MINURSO peacekeeping mission you can download this PowerPoint presentation (in pdf format, 15 Mb), prepared by Nick Brooks and Joaquim Soler i Subils.
(2) Last I heard, MINURSO was looking into the possibility of removing the graffiti at Lajuad. As far as I know they are still pursuing this via negotiations with arcaheologists from the University of Girona and external experts (they have been talking to my colleage Joaquim Soler), but no further details are available at present. The main issue here is likely to be who pays for any such work, and which agencies are involved in implementation of any clean-up.
For more discussion of cultural heritage and its relationship to the Western Sahara conflict, see Cultural Heritage and Conflict: The Threatened Archaeology of Western Sahara, by Nick Brooks, in The Journal of North African Studies (pdf file, 3.1 Mb).
For more information on the work of the Western Sahara Project (archaeological and palaeo-environmental research), see the Project website.