|Norman Schwartz is
retiring as Full Professor of Anthropology at the University of Delaware
after 36 years of service which include 2 years as Acting Chair and 3 years
as Chair of the Anthropology Department. His many grants and yearly research
trips to the Peten in Guatemala--interspersed by other trips to Panama,
Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Morroco and Spain--are testimony not only to
his love of his work and the Peten, but also of his internationally recognized
expertise in conservation and natural resources management. He has served
many years as consultant to the World Bank/Global Conservation Fund and
US AID/Conservation International among others.
In 1999, Dr. Schwartz and
I founded the Delaware Review of Latin American Studies under the auspices
of the Latin American Program of the University of Delaware, serving as
its first co-editors. I have felt privileged to work with Norman these
past few years, not only because of his great sense of humor and excellent
advice, but also because our working meetings always included retellings
of his experiences in the Peten. My own students of Latinamerican literature
and culture have much to thank him--unbeknownst to him or them--as Iíve
incorporated his life lessons into my classes.
What first interested you
in Anthropology as a field of study/research?
In my senior year in college,
Dr. Abraham Edel, whose wife, May Edel, was an anthropologist, suggested
that I consider going to grad school in anthropology because the field
was a wide one, ranging from human physical evolution to highly symbolic
matters. Since my own interests were somewhat broad, it seemed a natural
sort of choice. Dr. Edel also sugested I read Edward Sapir's book Language,
and Sapir simply swept me off my feet. Also, I had worked for a physical
anthropologist, Dr. Stanley Garn, who made human evolution endlessly fascinating
and was a mentor in more ways than one. So, all in all, it seemed a good
How did you first become
involved with Latin America and/or the Peten?
I spent part of my childhood
in Arizona and became interested in Mexico. Then, when I was in grad school,
Dr. Ruben Reina invited me to work with him in Peten. At first, I was reluctant
becasue I wanted to go to Sonora, Mexico, just south of Tucson, Arizona,
but Ben, that is, Ruben, said the people of Peten were descended from Mexican
groups, more or less, and so I went off with him. And it was at the right
time, because in 1960 the Guatemalan government was just opening what was
then a sparsely populated lowland forest region to colonization and development,
a process I've been able to observe over the years. Ben is a very fine
ethnographer, and I learned a great deal about what anthropologists call
"participant observation" from him.
You sometimes mention that
your type of anthropology deals with the living. Explain.
It's a sort of silly joke.
I'm not too interested in antiquity as such, although I think one has to
know the history of a process or region to understand it fully, but I enjoy
the social give-and-take of ethnography, of observing and listening to
people who, at the same time, are observing and listening to you, the observer.
That makes for all sorts of complexities that are interesting to unravel,
insofar as one can.
What brought you to UD?
Much as I enjoyed and benefited
from teaching at Middlebury College in Vermont, I couldn't take the weather
and couldn't live on the salary ($5,000). For personal and professional
reasons, Delaware is an ideal location, and the salary offer was double
what Middlebury was paying, and UD was planning to create a separate department
of anthropology, so there was a chance to contribute to shaping a program
How did you become interested
in environmental issues?
Beginning in 1959, the Guatemalan
government opened Peten to colonization and development, and by the mid-1960s
there was a great deal of spontaneous migration from other parts of Guatemala
to the northern lowland tropical forests of Peten. By the 1970s it was
clear that spontaneous colonization of Peten, even more than government-sponsored
colonization, was leading to forest conversion on a vast scale. In fact,
in 1975 I wrote a letter to the U.S. AID (Agency for International Development)
mission in Guatemala City expressing some concern that Peten might be heading
down the road the Classic Period Maya had taken. I was invited to the mission
to meet with two of the staff who said that although they shared my concern,
population in Peten was still low and the mission had more pressing priorities
elsewhere in Guatemala. By the late 1980s conservationists in Guatemala,
international conservation groups, the Guatemalan government and several
foreign governments became alarmed at the pace of deforestation in Peten
(and elsewhere in Central America), and they initiated programs to do something
about the situation, and I was given an opportunity to become involved.
I did want to do something, because of a concern for social justice, curiosity
about whether it was possible to find the right balance between conservation
of natural resources and economic development, and also, to tell the truth,
because of my children. You know how children raise their parents as much
as parents raise them, and I wanted my children to know that I shared their
concerns about the environment and was trying to make some small contribution
to deal with those concerns in a region I knew something about.
Tell us about your involvement
with international organizations like the World Bank.
Under Title XII and other auspices,
I did some applied anthropology in Panama between 1980 and 1984. Trying
to use anthropological concepts and methods to implement development projects
and solve real-world problems is challenging, and in Panama I was lucky
enough to work with some fine fresh-water-fish biologists and agricultural
economists. I think I learned a lot from them, especially Dr. Len Lovshin
from Auburn. In some ways, he reminds me of Ben Reina--one of those people
who sets the standard for fieldwork. Then, in 1990 I published a lengthy
book on the social history of Peten, and, as luck would have it, at about
that time, as I mentioned before, the Guatemalan government, our government
and a host of international conservation groups began to mount so-called
"integrated development-and-conservation programs" in places like Peten,
where there was a threat of deforestation and all that implies. Because
of the internal conflict in Guatemala during the 1980s, there weren't many
other ethnographers working in Peten, as I had been doing. That, and the
timing of the book, gave me some credibility, and I became a consultant
for Conservation International's program in Peten.
It was supposed to be
a six month consultancy, when a dear friend, the late Carlos Soza, became
head of the program, and he asked me to continue working with him. So,
the consultancy went on for more than two years, and the University was
generous enough to let me remain off campus for some time. In one way or
another, the work with CI and Carlos led to other consultancies, with the
World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, NASA, and so on. All very
challenging, sometimes frustrating, but always interesting both in terms
of the people with whom one works and the problems to be solved, if they
can be solved.
Obviously a lot of this has
to do with the question you asked before about the environment. When Conservation
International's Guatemalan project, called ProPeten, became an independent
NGO, Carlos Soza asked me to serve as vice president of the board, so my
direct involvement with the conservation and development in Peten is on-going.
In many ways it's more satisfying to work with a local NGO than with big
international organizations.This isn't the place to go into it, but I think
that an independent group of Peteneros concerned about the welfare of their
own region and their own people (and that includes environmental sanity)
has a better chance to achieve socially just development and conservation
goals than a group of outsiders who tend to want to dictate to them how
to get the job done. Of course, there are no guarantees that local people
will succeed, and outsiders can help, but only if they're willing to take
the lead from the people who have to live with the results of project activities
day by day.
You said that in the 1980s,
because of the internal conflict, there weren't many ethnographers working
in Peten. How were you able to go back so often during that period? And
why did you do that?
There was a good deal of violence
in Peten in the early 1980s, though not as much as in the western highlands
of Guatemala. The scariest time for me was when I was called into military
intelligence in Guatemala City and asked why I was so interested in land
tenure and related matters in Peten. I tred to explain that ethnographers
need to know about daily life and most people in Peten were farmers, so
I was interested in land, and so on. I was told I could go to Peten but
had to report to G2 down there -- as I recall that was the name of the
branch of the military I had to see -- and couldn't travel anywhere in
the region without the OK of the G2 office. When I got to Peten I spoke
with the G2 officer and, to my relief, he said something to the effect
that "those guys up in the City worry too much; do whatever you want; it's
hard enough to travel around this region, so you can go wherever you can."
Although I was stopped by military patrols once or twice and saw some of
the violence, by and large some knowledge of the region and a lot of dumb
luck kept me out of serious trouble.
You also ask about why I keep
going back. Part of it has to do with the friendships I've made with Peteneros
over the years. So, the visits to Peten are always social. But also it
is intellectual interest. No matter how much I learn about things like
tropical ecology, traditional ways of gardening and so on, there's always
some surprise, something new to learn. In addition, by continuing to retun
to Peten -- and it is now going on forty-four years of travel there --
I've been able to observe a good many of the complex processes that go
into so-called frontier development -- the politics, economics, ecology,
sociology and culture of that development, as well as how the world at
large intrudes on the processes. And every time I think I've reached a
conclusion about one of another of these processes, something happens to
let me know that there's more to learn.
There's something else, too.
Since about 1990s an increasing number of graduate students, not to mention
seasoned professionals, from a wide range of countries -- the US, France,
Germany, Spain and, of course, Guatemala itself -- have been doing research
on an equally wide range of topics in Peten. There is a lot to learn from
them, especially the graduate students who are up on the latest theories
and have a lot of fresh observations to make. Because the students' interests
are so diverse, there's a lot of opportunity for cross-disciplinary learning
What did you have in mind
when you founded DeRLAS?
As I implied, I've had a chance
to work with some very talented and dedicated people, including very fine
scholars in Peten, Guatemala and Veraguas, Panama. But in both places,
students and scholars don't always have access to the library and journal
material they'd like to have, but they do have access to the "net". So,
an academically sound, peer-refereed electronic journal helps give them
broader access than they woud otherwise have. And the cost is a lot less
than paper journals. In addition, since the journal publishes in Spanish
and Portuguese as well as English, it encourages sbumissions from Latin
American scholars who might not otherwise think of publishing their material
in a USA-based journal. For example, as the first editor of DeRLAS, you'll
recall that in our first issue, Licenciado Amilcar Corzo published an impressive
essay on the fate of one community in Peten.
What do you feel is your
At my age, probably surviving
is OK. I'm not too good at looking back at things I've done or, more often,
left undone. I think I've played a small part in helping a few young people
become what they had it in them to become, and that's a big achievement,
even if one's own contribution was small. As luck would have it, I've also
been able to work with graduate as well as undergraduate students. But,
it's easier to think of what's ahead.
Do you have any special advice
for scholars who want to concentrate on Latin America?
I suppose one would have to
know exactly what particular topics or themes and what particular geo-cultural
areas catch their interest. Aside from the obvious -- like reading as much
history, geography, anthropology and so on that then can, that is, learning
as much as they can about their area -- I think young people ought to be
sure that they really enjoy their concentration -- simply enjoy and be
truly interested and curious about the area. The external rewards finally
don't mean much, but the intrinsic ones do. Of course, that sometimes entails
frustration and even pain, but the sense that there's always something
more to learn has its own rewards.
In your dealings with local
or native populations and the international agencies in the Peten, what
changes would you deem necessary for the situation to improve?
I think that local groups have
to learn to negotiate more with international agencies and not simply go
along with an this or that agenda because it brings in money and because
they feel powerless to negotiate. I know that's easier to say than do,
but local groups have to avoid accepting funding and development or conservation
programs that do not fit their own ideas of how to solve problems in their
own region. It takes a lot of self-confidence to negotiate and even reject
the scheme that a powerful, wealthy international agency would like to
impose (I can't think of another word than "impose" at this moment) on
the people of a given region, but somehow local groups have got to find
the strength to do that. Corzo's essay shows what happens when local groups
feel powerless, but just the fact that he wrote what he did demonstrates
that there are people who are not passive in the face of powerful outside
groups, and that essay is simply one example of the hopeful changes going
on in Peten.
On the other side, international
organizations have to learn to listen to local groups and not be so quick
to think and feel they have the answers, even answers to technical matters
like bio-diversity conservation. All too often international donors, their
experts and consultants appear to be arrogant over-bearing know-it-alls
who impose their will on others. Some donor agency staff, and in particular
high-ranking officers of this or that organization, tend to think that
compliance, especially courteous compliance is agreement, even though field
staff may know better. For all the talk about "participatory processes,"
there often is a lack of genuine willingness to co-manage conservation,
development or other projects, and that usually means the projects, which
local people may have accepted rather than helped create, are not durable
and tend to collapse shortly after a donor agency departs -- and they do
depart, to follow the funding trails and fads wherever they lead. So, insofar
as the international agencies really want to realize their stated goals,
rather than merely enhance their own roles and coffers, they have to be
willing to share decision-making authority with local groups, and local
groups have to find the confidence to negotiate rather than simply comply.
I know I'm oversimplifying because
it is extremely complicated hard work, and there are all sorts of pitfalls
that attend managerial parity. Just to mention one example, even when everyone
agrees to sharing authority, there may be radically different meanings
attached to concepts of "sharing" and "authority." That is, what anthropologists
call "culture" really does count. At the same time, as Saul Alinsky taught,
there is a shared human capacity for laughter, and if by some magical stroke
of luck all the parties involved can appreciate the comic side as well
as the serious side of what they are doing, there's a chance things will
work out. As I said, I know I'm leaving a lot out, but words like co-management
and shared authority catch at the direction in which I think things should
What are your plans for the
I have some writing obligations
to wrap up. I will continue to travel to Peten since it seems that there's
always some new development, some new puzzle that catches my attention.
My wife and I also will continue to visit Israel, where my daughter lives,
but we'd also like to see more of this country, and spend time with our
children who are scattered across the country. I may do some teaching in
Peten and also in Nicaragua, but without having to hand out grades and
all that uncomfortable adminsitrative stuff. I'll be able to mentor students
without forever having to judge their performance. There'll also be time
to learn a little about subjects I've neglected, probably out of laziness
more than lack of time. But now I can be lazy and still study them: things
like Hebrew, plant biology, more Spanish-American literature -- things
like that. It's sort of like putting out the sign that says "Gone fishing."