OLANCHO, Honduras –
Service members with Joint Task Force-Bravo, representatives from Blue Shield International, the Virginia Museum of Natural History, the Honduran Institute of Anthropology (HIA) and Honduran military forces partnered for a unique and first of its kind subject matter expert exchange, Aug. 23-26, to learn how to identify cultural heritage sites in the department of Olancho.
Archeology is the study of the past through material remains of previous societies; it is not the usual environment one might expect military personnel to venture into.
After the devastation left by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, HIA identified the need to strengthen capacities of organizations that collaborate with them in the protection of natural and cultural heritage, specifically during response operations, making the U.S. military an ideal ally to partner with.
The protection of cultural heritage is contemplated within the Honduran constitution and as its keepers, it is important that the military understands these basic concepts, much like the U.S. Army’s Monuments Officers.
Identifying cultural heritage protects it, and as a trusted partner to the region, U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) provided the tools to conduct this exchange.
“We are not only helping build capacity for the Honduran military to protect the Honduran cultural property, but working together in the field helps to create more understanding between partners,” said Dr. Amir Gamliel, Environmental Program Manager with USSOUTHCOM. “We are building partnerships as we work together. It is a demonstration that [SOUTHCOM] cares about the cultural preservation of our partners.”
The training began with a sequence of conferences to cover basic academics on the different features and traits a site needs to be identified as having potential archeological value, as well as the tools used by professionals to record data.
Honduras is culturally wealthy and the department of Olancho has a historical background that dates back to more than 3000 B.C. This department also has extensive unpopulated regions that have facilitated the transport of illicit materials, making it an area of interest for local military and security forces. This training will allow Honduran forces to operate in the region without damaging or upsetting the natural, historical and cultural remains.
Blue Shield is an organization committed to the protection of cultural and natural property in the event of a disaster or during armed conflict. Participants were divided into two teams under the guidance of Mr. William Welsh and Dr. Michael Delacruz, cultural heritage assessment team members, who assisted USSOUTHCOM’s mission by facilitating their knowledge as Blue Shield advisors and Monument Officers with the U.S. Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne).
Engineers and a civil affairs team with JTF-Bravo served as liaisons between all key players and coordinated the development of the exchange as the main USSOUTHCOM representatives in the region. They also actively participated as team leads for on the field practices, increasing the Task Force’s capabilities and knowledge.
After the academic portion was completed, all players applied the techniques by conducting an exercise in potential and confirmed archeological sites, including experts with the Museum of Natural History, who assisted in a virtual capacity by recording the information gathered by them during their practice to create a site map that can later assist the HIA.
The HIA also gave the teams the opportunity to learn about the historical background of Olancho by visiting the Talgua Caves in Catacamas to understand more about the civilizations that used to inhabit the region and the importance of what natural resources represented to them.
“For us as service members, this training is atypical, but it has been interesting to go into a new field, hand-in-hand, and have the capability to identify these traits because this department is rich in archeological sites and sometimes we don’t even know where we are standing,” said Honduran Army Capt. Alexander Aguilar Martínez with the 115th Infantry Brigade. “We will share this new knowledge to our forces so they can also identify traits and features of cultural heritage sites so they are aware when conducting missions within this department.”
The 115th Infantry Brigade has previously assisted as security forces for missions exploring the mythical “White City” located in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve of Honduras, making this type of training key for these operations.
“The idea is to come to this exchange, learn and then later on transmit this knowledge so we understand the environment we are operating in,” said Aguilar.
This unique exchange has been the first of its kind and enhanced partner nation capacity while strengthening ties between both nations, allowing participants to identify with their own cultural background, as well as, the collective history that unites the Americas.