Legacy of the Ancient Maya

What sustained the great, expanding populations of the ancient Maya in their seemingly inhospitable tropical environment? Recent pioneering work in Belize and Guatemala is introducing a remarkable new paradigm and setting a standard of sustainability for future generations.

Legacy of the Ancient Maya: The Maya Forest Garden

This is not your typical Maya archaeological site. It doesn't wow you with its imposing monumental temples, plazas, ball courts and residential palaces like Palenque or Tikal. Yet, it boasts 100 acres of plazas, pyramids and other structures, ranking it among the major ancient centers of the lowland Maya region. Straddling the border of Belize and Guatemala, the site of El Pilar, as this settlement has come to be known, doesn't flaunt monumental prowess with cleanly exposed stone structures. Most of the ancient structures still lie protected by vegetation because it is the subject of a whole new kind of archaeological investigation. It may prove to be a model for many projects to come, leading to solutions about how humanity can sustain itself and flourish by cooperating with nature instead of altering, subduing and destroying it. The research is based upon the premise that the ancient Maya worked WITH their tropical environment, as opposed to exploiting and transfiguring it, to create a flourishing civilization sustained by its natural environment or ecosystem. Exploring this concept could answer some age-old questions about what contributed to ancient Maya prosperity and, conversely, what may have contributed to its mysterious decline. By extension (and even more exciting), in this age of increasing global environmental awareness, it serves as a living museum and laboratory, drawing from what can be learned about ancient cultural practices to create a conservation model for the future of our own civilization.  At the center of all of this lies a remarkable ancient Maya practice -- the Maya Forest Garden.......... 



A New Paradigm

In the midst of today’s globalizing forces, the traditional stewardship strategies that conserved the tropics and sustained the rural Maya for centuries are threatened with extinction. Contemporary conservation practices of tropical forests have relied upon the western approach: removing the human element from the equation. Yet ecological and botanical research on the Maya forest has recently demonstrated that it is in fact a variegated garden dominated by plants of economic value, and thus highly dependent on human interaction. The co-evolution of the Maya and their environment was based on a strategy of resource management that resulted in a landscape called the Maya “forest garden.”

During the Archaic period, between 8,000 and 4,000 years ago, the ancestral Maya established an intimate relationship with an expanding tropical forest. As mobile horticulturalists, they modified the landscape to meet their subsistence needs. The agricultural system that the Maya developed from this archaic system underwrote the civilization. It is called the milpa cycle, a polycultivated, tree-dominated, biodiverse landscape which works in accordance with natural cycles and maximizes the utility of native flora and fauna. The Maya milpa cycle sequences from a closed canopy forest to an open field.  When cleared, it is dominated by annual crops that transform into a managed orchard garden, and then back to a closed canopy forest in a continuous circuit. Contrary to European agricultural systems developed around the same period, these fields are never abandoned, even when they are forested. Thus, it is more accurate to think of the milpa cycle as a rotation of annuals with succeeding stages of forest perennials during which all phases receive careful human management.

In fact, every facet of Maya culture is deeply intertwined with their terrain, betraying a relationship that extends far beyond mere subsistence. Even the Maya language demonstrates a long-embedded knowledge of forest ecology. Yet until recently, mainstream scholarship on the Maya did not take into account the multidisciplinary lines of evidence that inform this relationship. In his popular synthesis on societal collapse, Jared Diamond, for instance, posits that lowland Maya interactions with the surrounding forest were largely destructive in naturein particular, deforestation associated with agriculture. Diamond determines that this deforestation led to the detriment and ultimate ‘‘collapse’’ of the Classic Maya society around 1,100–1,000 years ago. Such conclusions are made based upon one interpretation, without embracing the remarkable sources of data that relate to the region from the fields of biology, botany, and agriculture.

Ethnobiologists, economic botanists, and agroecologists working with the Maya today hold a different view of Maya interactions with their environment. Extensive evidence exists on the management of forest resources, the flora and fauna, and the subtleties of Maya ecological knowledge. Traditional practices of forest gardening support a model of long-term, sustainable management of natural resources by the Maya. We see the Maya as managers rather than as destroyers, and this is an essential step in understanding how to conserve this and other threatened tropical ecosystems today. Rather than using the Maya model as one of destructive behavior–a “failed society”–their responsible interaction with their environment can provide us with a model of global sustainability.


Organizing for Sustainability

Exploring Solutions Past~The Maya Forest Alliance (ESP~Maya), a decade-old nonprofit organization, has been charting the way to conserve the disappearing heritage of the Maya, their tangible ancient monuments and their intangible knowledge of sustainable forest gardening. The aim of ESP~Maya’s work is to save one of our world’s vital human landscapes: The Maya forest. To promote conservation, ESP~Maya identifies the sustainable history of the ancient Maya, educates the world on its intrinsic value to nature and culture, and demonstrates the critical expertise of the Maya forest gardeners. On the initiative and enterprise of Maya forest gardeners, we combine international academic scholars with regional development and conservation specialists to accredit still-thriving conservation traditions. Based on multidisciplinary strategies of research, our collaboration in the lab and field defines the regional resources of the ancient Maya city of El Pilar, a sustainable visitor destination which bridges Belize and Guatemala. At El Pilar, ESP~Maya has created a living museum landscaped with the Maya forest gardeners, integrating traditional Maya forest garden knowledge into local education and international tourism.

To better understand the ancient archaeological settlement patterns of El Pilar, ESP~Maya began to meet with traditional Maya of the El Pilar area. Reviewing their home gardens and lands farther afield, we determined to inventory plants for use as food, medicine, spices, dyes, ornaments, construction, household products, toys, beverages, rituals, fodder, and more. The exercise prompted a local response, bringing together a group of traditional farmers with the intention of pooling their knowledge of their own practices.

Appreciating the value of their collective heritage, these traditional farmers sought a means to educate their youth in their own cultural heritage. In recognition of the challenges they face in keeping their traditions alive, they wanted to work in conjunction with ESP~Maya. They actively support documenting their forest gardens and their practices. Yet with the desire to increase local participation, they were compelled to do more. They want their children to understand the forest garden at their home and at the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna.  

Enter the El Pilar Forest Garden Network (EPFGN), a group of contemporary practitioners of ancient traditions -  Maya stewards of culture and of the land. The EPFGN, established in Belize in September 2008, is a collective of Maya farmers who together manage nearly 300 hectares (720 acres) of land that consists of their own forest gardens. They see how the global trends have intervened in their life and want to show the importance of their knowledge and practice.  These indigenous forest gardeners use their traditional skills and their practical investment in the Maya forest garden every day. They share a technological legacy of skills, strategies, and practices with a direct link into the Maya past and El Pilar.  This sets them apart from the conventional and industrial monoculture farming in the area. Their forest conservation strategies have been fostered over the last 500 years purely through the maintenance of oral traditions; an accumulation of wisdom, passed down over centuries and generations.

Although global impacts threaten to eclipse many indigenous learning processes, the Maya forest gardeners are persistent traditionalists, the original permaculturalists. Each member of the collective proclaims an area in private reserve where they cultivate the natural resources of the forest itself:  palms for oil, vines for construction, hardwoods for lumber, and the many fruits, spices, medicines, as well as tools and toys depended upon for daily life. Approximately 175 hectares, nearly 60% of all their lands, are dedicated to these vital reserves.

In their home forest gardens, they cultivate both sun-loving annual herbs and vegetables and shade-preferring perennial fruits and nuts, providing year-round sustenance; and while the forest reserves are dominated by native species, the home gardens are an eclectic mosaic with plants from all over the world, making these traditional Maya actually global gardeners, continuing to work in harmony with their indigenous resources.

A Model for the Future

Seeking new ways to spread their knowledge and skills, in October of 2008, the EPFGN began establishing a model forest garden at the Santa Familia Primary School in Cayo, Belize.  Called Känan K’aax ("well tended forest" in Mayan), this unique plot serves as an educational site for the youth of their village. This model forest garden, designed by elders and maintained by children, consolidates the vanishing knowledge of the Maya forest and reveals the importance of the Maya forest garden in preserving habitat, conserving biodiversity, nurturing culture, and sustaining families. They can then bring their new-found knowledge and skill to El Pilar.

Currently under the joint care and instruction of the EPFGN and Santa Familia Primary School administration, Känan K’aax has attracted local involvement, student class visits, regional university interns, international permaculture enthusiasts, and worldwide environmental educators. It is the essential goal of the traditionalists to bring alive the excitement of the teachings of the EPFGN at this inspiring educational site, and as the school forest garden curriculum progresses, the traditions will codify the vital cultural technologies of community elders and this new information will become a part of the next program. The plan formalized at Känan K’aax also provides a practical model for international exchange on traditional plant uses, as well. Fostering this multicultural and interdisciplinary dialogue is the key to nature conservation and cultural prosperity.

With effective models based on the inherent value of a traditional people’s conservation strategies, like the Maya, we see increasing acknowledgement that the preservation of cultures and economic development are mutually dependent. Cultural heritage is thus an asset that is indispensable for the achievement of sustainable development.

The Känan K'aax educational site project recognizes that the continuity of knowledge is key to the survival of the Maya conservation legacy. Through the involvement of the school children, traditional forest garden strategies live on and provide a replicable model of regional sustainability in an area of the globe that has enormous potential impact for all of us. On their own initiative, the EPFGN coordinates their efforts with the support of ESP~Maya to bring international outreach to the global community. Regional and international involvement through ESP~Maya will widen the reach of the EPFGN, building recognition of the valuable skills and strategies of the original permaculturalists. The outcome will be an opportunity for Maya youth to learn profitable and sustainable domestic living practices built on the foundation of the ancient Maya.

Together, these guardians and gardeners see the work at the Känan K'aax garden as a prelude to activities at El Pilar, forging a connection to the past.  At El Pilar, the children can put their learning to practice. The collaboration of the EPFGN with the school and the ability of the ESP~Maya to assist in the goals is a promise for the future, in line with UNESCOs education goals to mobilize local resources. Now, with the support of a National Geographic Society grant, the development of infrastructure at the model school garden will become a reality. This progress gives the children of the Santa Familia community and the Maya region hope for the conservation of native resources that keep the Maya forest alive. They are learning that they are the guardians of the Maya forest, as were their ancestors at El Pilar in prehistory.  More significantly, this legacy and responsibility belongs not just to the Maya children -- it belongs to all of us as, in the end, we are all ultimately a globally interdependent community and stewards of a fragile planet. 



No. 1, top: The Ball Court at El Pilar; courtesy BRASS/El Pilar

No. 2 from top: Maya Forest Garden; courtesy BRASS/El Pilar

No. 3 from top: The Milpa Cycle, from maize field to perennials and back to the forest; courtesy BRASS/El Pilar

No. 4 from top: Short term perennials protect the fruit and hardwoods of Master Forest Gardener Chaco; courtesy MacDuff Everton

No. 5 from top: Santa Familia Primary School children study the plant list of  Känan K’aax; courtesy BRASS/El Pilar

No. 6 from top: The Grand Plaza Copal; courtesy MacDuff Everton

Author Photo: Courtesy MacDuff Everton


To learn more, see these websites:

  • MesoAmerican Research Center: www.marc.ucsb.edu. This site contains field reports and reflects the more academic aspects of the project.
  • Exploring Solutions Past: The Maya Forest Alliance: www.espmaya.org. This site, for the non-profit organization, is more of an educational overview of the work with a greater focus on community involvement.
  • The El Pilar Forest Garden Network: www.mayaforestgardeners.org. This site has some great resources, including a database of plants showcasing the biodiversity of the milpa and forest garden.   

By Anabel Ford

Anabel Ford

Anabel Ford is dedicated to decoding the ancient Maya landscape. While living in Guatemala in 1978, she learned from local people that the Maya forest was an edible garden when she mapped a 30-km transect between the Petén sites of Tikal and Yaxhá. In 1983, she discovered and later mapped the Maya city El Pilar. In 1993, after settlement survey and excavations, she launched a multidisciplinary program to understand the culture and nature of El Pilar. Ford’s publications are cited nationally and internationally as part of the foundation of Maya settlement pattern studies. Her archaeological themes are diverse, appearing in geological, ethnobiological, geographical, and botanical arenas and locally in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico. Her concern for management of cultural monuments, in-situ conservation, and tourism appear in Getty publications.

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