Heroes of the Maya Forest: Humanist Society
By Robert Bernstein
UCSB Professor Anabel Ford offered the Humanist Society a history of Maya Forest agriculture that continues to this day. And that can teach us lessons to use in sustainability in our modern world.
She has very kindly shared her slides of her presentation here.
Her research is centered on a site called El Pilar which straddles the border of Belize and Guatemala. The site is part of a Peace Park Initiative along a frontier that had been in dispute by both nations.
But the study area is much larger, extending through the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, the region of famed Maya sites such as Chichen Itza.
Ford does not claim to be an authority on everything about the Maya Forest. She works with citizen scientists in the region and collaborates with scholars from diverse fields, including Ronald Nigh. Nigh is an ethnologist who coauthored their book "The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millenia of Sustainable Cultivation of the tropical Woodlands".
She first had to learn to navigate the forest trails as the locals do. They use the sun as a reference.
Humans arrived in the region more than 12,000 years ago. They were free of incumbrancers like beasts of burden and adapted with skill, knowledge, and practice. It only took 2,000 years ago to reach the end of South America at Tierra del Fuego.
When Ford first learned of this region as a student it was thought that no one was in the Maya Forest area 12,000 years ago. But that is impossible.
Climate change has been the theme of the region: 12,000 years ago the area was more like arid savanna and pine than anything like the forest we see now, it was cold and dry.
As climate warmed and precipitation rose, 8,000 years ago, this began to change. This slide shows how the climate changed over time.
It became warm and wet, with no dry season. We know this history by looking at layers in the ground. Titanium trace element deposits serve as a proxy for rainfall.
Breadnut or Ramon is an important plant in this region. It is the only dominant tree that is wind pollinated. Wind-blown pollen is what makes you sneeze! Wind-pollinated plants make up only 1% of tropical forest. And only about 10% of angiosperms (flowering plants) today.
About 4,000 years ago came climate changes impacting the predictability of rainfall. This brought development of permanent houses and use of ceramics in this region. People were settling down in communities rather than being nomadic.
With the change in rainfall, the area came to have a dry and a wet season with the El Nino impacts and hurricanes. Two wet seasons, in fact. One from June to September influenced by the warm hurricanes from the Caribbean, and a second one from November to February influenced by the cold Atlantic winters.
Early settlements were small. Around 3,000 years ago we see some temples, but not many and by 2,000 years ago civic centers began to expand in this area.
The time from 1400-1100 years ago is called the Late Classic period of the Maya. It is what we think of as the Maya Period. When such sites as Chichen Itza, Tikal, and El Pilar were built and fully occupied. Typical communities were at a density of about one house per acre, each with its own garden.
The Terminal Classic period was from 1100-800 years ago and what exactly was going on is disputed. No one disappeared. We just know that they were not maintaining their civic centers.
Think of how we have ghost towns in the US. Detroit has torn town thousands of buildings and replaced them with gardens.
One of the most important points that Ford makes is about the term "arable" land. The term is often used as synonymous with land that can be farmed. But it really means land that can be plowed. The Maya had planting techniques that did not require plowing.
Ford talked about the people who live at El Pilar. Alfonzo Tzul said they learned little of their history in school. They were taught that the Maya were a thing of a past that went away. He came to realize that they didn't go away. "We are the Maya!"
Why did the people who came to the Americas thousands of years ago stop in the El Pilar area in the first place? Because it is an area of fertile soil. In contrast, the Amazon rainforest soil has no bedrock under it and overall is not all fertile.
The Maya forest uplands are fertile. A limestone base has lots of calcium and other minerals. Good for growing maize (corn).
The area does not just produce food. Ford compared the forest with Costco, although that demeans the forest! She offered this chart of plants that provide medicines, construction materials, roof thatching, kitchen tools, latex, paper and poison.
They also built their kitchen separate from their house as a form of fire insurance if the kitchen were to catch on fire.
Ford went on to talk about the Milpa Cycle.
We hear the term "slash and burn" agriculture and think it sound brutal. Like "rape and pillage"! But the slashing and burning is only four years of a 20 year cycle.
She showed images of the process.
Yum ik'ob is the fire tender. This is a skilled profession. "Ik" means "wind". They set back-fires to limit the spread. The area can be very dry and people who don't know what they are doing can do real damage.
In a good burn, plenty of trees remain. There are shoots. It is not all dead. Some trees do better after a fire. A certain palm was an example. We can eat the heart of that palm.
As noted earlier, this area is not suitable for plowing. There are too many rocks. It is not "arable". But that does not mean it can't be farmed. The farmers plant with a stick as in this image:
She showed an image of seemingly dead corn. But in fact the corn ears are preserved on the stalks. And beans grow up the stalks, so it is very much alive.
The farmers also plant perennials. Today this might include bananas, but there were others in ancient times.
Here was a photo of an allspice forest that keeps the ground clear beneath it.
El Pilar farmer Chaco posed with a mahogany tree that he said will provide for him in his retirement.
But the Climate Crisis represents a challenge as seen in these graphs:Not only is the temperature rising. But precipitation goes through greater extremes than in the past. Monocrops are not helping.
Viceroy Tomás López Medel was one of the Spanish conquerors. He declared that the natives should behave like people in Spain. He said that agriculture is dirty. It should not be near the houses. He destroyed the very means of survival for the Maya people!
She talked about an image in the April 1986 National Geographic that was supposed to represent Maya agriculture. It was well meaning, but got it very wrong. She said it looked like a Mennonite farm with its straight lines! The Maya are not trying to keep the forest at bay. The forest is their home. And it is a pleasant home that is not exposed to the hot sun.
Ford worries that the Maya farmers who know these skills are dying out. She showed a slide of those who are alive and those who have passed.
Bill Gates is trying to record what is known before it is lost. But Maya forest gardening is a skill that has to be practiced or it will be lost.
The area looks so different from a westerner's idea of a farm that the even the government thought it was abandoned. Because the farmers' plots were very steep and looked overgrown. Ford had to write a letter explaining it is very much still in use with many useful fruit trees, production palms, and undergrowth that enhanced habitat for animals.
Her own house is unique for having trees all around. She is mystified why others in the neighborhood don't want trees around their houses. They need to try it!
She talked of going hunting with Chencho. He sets up a hammock where the animal lives and waits. When the animal arrives, he knocks it out. He explained how he finds water. You look for the damselfly. It needs flowing water.
You learn a new aesthetic. Chichen Itza in the 1830s was covered with vegetation. It is bare now. It never would have been bare when it was thriving. Clearing out these ancient places actually harms the newly exposed stucco and stone. The trees are needed as shade to preserve the surfaces.
I asked what lessons can we apply today in our own country. She offered these observations: Paving everything is a problem. Shade is good. It conserves water. Have a diversity of trees. Support small land holders by shopping at the Farmer's Market.
She said that the Maya plant where the water is rather than bringing it in.
Audience member Helen said she had visited Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve in Yucatan. She was pleased that only Maya give tours which is good ecotourism.
Ford noted that El Pilar is not just about ecotourism, but it is part of it. Its design is not to support mass tourism but to promote a living museum for local education, regional interactions, and international exchange.
Ford talked of food "sovereignty" rather than "security". Farmers who diversify crops with a broad portfolio can support their families and also produce for sale. If they plant half for commercial use and half for local use they may not face shortages of food and capital.
Ford would like to bring some of the El Pilar farmers here to speak and teach. She is talking with the UCSB Chancellor to present an award and is looking for sponsorship.
Mayan is spoken all over the greater Yucatan, but in lowland Guatemala and Belize few still speak the language. Mostly they speak Spanish; in Belize there is also English based Creole.
Please go to http://exploringsolutionspast.org/ for more information about El Pilar.
Or visit their Facebook page at:
Finally, here is a copy of the latest newsletter from El Pilar: