Barron: End U Professor’s Colonization Efforts


(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

By Morgan Barron, Opinion Writer


Dr. Richard Hansen, an American archeologist and adjunct professor with the University of Utah’s anthropology department, has spent much of his adult life exploring and excavating the ancient Mayan city of El Mirador in Guatemala. For the past 20 years, though, his focus has shifted from research to ecotourism, lobbying Guatemalan and American politicians to turn the site into a tourist attraction complete with hotels, restaurants and a train. Hansen is closer than ever to realizing his goal, gaining support from the new Guatemalan President and a few US senators, despite concerns of community members and local archeologists. However, in a recent VICE documentary on El Mirador’s future, Hansen revealed himself as a modern-day colonizer as he disparaged local stakeholders and their role in the decision-making process. As the university’s affiliation with Hansen has made the U complicit in his attempt to colonize El Mirador, university leadership needs to denounce Hansen’s actions, terminate his professorship and dedicate resources to elevate local voices in the debate around El Mirador’s future.

Colonization is the act of re-appropriating land without local consent and is the product of white supremacy, a definition that Hansen’s planned resort fits perfectly. While he talks about El Mirador as “real live Disneyland” complete with animals and ancient ruins, Hansen rarely mentions the 180,000 people who call the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR), of which El Mirador is a part, home. Hansen has also excluded these locals from conversations about El Mirador’s future, even though the resort would have a profound impact on this community’s way of life by ending a program that allows locals to sustainably log within the MBR in return for protecting the rainforest. When asked about local criticism of his plan, Hansen demonstrated clear disdain for locals, suggesting they smoke too much to understand his vision.

The U’s leadership recently committed to “creating a compassionate, equitable and just society for all” and promised to “make [our] historically white institution more… responsive to the diverse communities we serve.” While this statement was written as a response to police brutality and racial injustice in our county and community, the U cannot denounce white supremacy while continuing to support Hansen’s actions in Guatemala. If the U’s anti-racist sentiments are actionable and not placative, university leadership needs to publicly and clearly condemn Hansen’s work to turn El Mirador into a resort.

Hansen has been leveraging his professional reputation as a leading expert on ancient Maya civilization to oversell El Mirador to potential investors. In a proposed Senate bill dedicating $60 million to the development of El Mirador, Hansen wrote that the region has “over 100 ancient Maya cities… includes the world’s largest pyramids in volume, the tallest pyramids in the Americas [and] the first paved ancient highway systems.” However, there is no published support for these claims and even some evidence refuting them. While overstating the features of El Mirador improves Hansen’s chances of securing land and funding for his planned resort, it seems to violate the U’s faculty rules which state, “When reporting the results of their research… faculty members must be honest in the presentation of the data.” Violating faculty rules is sanctionable. The U should terminate Hansen’s professorship as his continued affiliation offers academic legitimacy to his exaggerated research and his plan to develop El Mirador.

Hansen’s plans for a resort may continue to threaten El Mirador even if the U denounces his actions and terminates his professorship since Guatemalan legislators and the country’s new president have expressed interest in the project. While Guatemala’s Department of Archaeology has partnered with local community members to speak out against Hansen’s plan, there has been very little local involvement in the legislative hearings surrounding the future of El Mirador. By supporting Hansen’s research and ignoring his plan to develop El Mirador, the U has, perhaps inadvertently, sponsored colonization. To correct this mistake, the U needs to dedicate resources to elevate the voices of local stakeholders and ensure they can be active participants in this debate.

Colonization is part of the U’s legacy — the school was established in a valley that was once home to the Ute, Goshute, Paiute, Navajo and Shoshone peoples — but should have no place in the university’s present or future. Acting on university leadership’s anti-racist statements, the U needs to denounce Hansen’s attitude of superiority and his efforts to exclude local stakeholders from the decision-making process, terminate his professorship and dedicate resources to elevate the voices of local stakeholders during the debate for the future of El Mirador.


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