Unsung Stewards of the Earth

UCSB Archeologist Anabel Ford Rewrites the Book on Maya Farming Practices

by Sam Kornell

Anabel-Ford.jpgThe prevailing view of the collapse of the Maya civilization goes something like this: The Maya, despite their beautiful art, monumental architecture, and highly developed forms of government, astronomy, and mathematics, never learned to farm their land. They slashed and burned, and by the time of their peak in 1000 AD, their population had become too dense, their network of cities overcrowded and overly reliant on non-sustainable agriculture. Though other factors may have played a part in the downfall  —  including a hard drought and a possible epidemic  —  the common belief is that the chief reason for the Maya collapse was their poor ecological stewardship. Now, a millennium after the civilization’s zenith, this historical dogma is about to get more publicity than ever before: Apocalypto, Mel Gibson’s new film — which hits theaters in December — is a two-and-a-half hour exploration of the collapse of the Maya, and it reportedly draws heavily on the theory of their ecological ineptitude.

Enter Anabel Ford, a vivacious, fast-talking UCSB archeologist who is becoming increasingly renowned for her work in the Maya rainforest, a 6-million-acre swath of land that spans parts of modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Despite scientific orthodoxy and Gibson’s filmic ministrations, Ford does not believe that the Maya “collapsed” because there were too many of them and they were too greedy and crude in the way they cultivated their land. In fact, she says, they were excellent stewards of the rainforest, and their practices can help us think productively about sustainable ecology in the age of globalization and global warming. Ford’s argument  —  which she stresses is based on interdisciplinary study, not archeology alone  —  is gaining adherents, a trend likely to be amplified in coming months by the publication of her article “Agriculture and Landscape in the Maya Forest,” upcoming in Current Anthropology and Science.

The view of the Maya as ecologically self-destructive is entrenched. Most recently, the geographer Jared Diamond used it in Collapse, his bestselling book about the various ways societies bring about their own disintegration. But Ford, who has spent the last 20 years studying the Maya, remains unconvinced. The bedrock of her skepticism  —  and her article  —  is a simple fact, but one she believes holds profound implications. It is, namely, that 90 percent of the modern Maya forest is human-influenced, or anthropogenic.

“There’s much more to the story than: the Maya cut down the trees, destroyed their environment, and collapsed,” she said last week from her office. “Basically, it looks like the forest wasn’t destroyed. There is a forest garden today  —  90 percent of the dominant species have utility to humanity. This is a feral forest now, and it still shows that mark.” According to Ford, such astonishing ecological coherence could not be possible if the Maya had been such destructive farmers. Indeed, the opposite must be true: the Maya must have been exceptionally attuned and responsive to their environment if they managed to have such a lasting, all-encompassing effect on the Mesoamerican landscape.

Ford does not dispute that the Maya society began to decline in size and influence around the turn of the first millennium. But she ascribes the decline to a combination of complicated factors, pointedly omitting the notion that they were a warlike culture that violently imploded. And, crucially, she argues that the agricultural practices of the Maya can provide us with a blueprint for the preservation of the modern Maya forest, and indeed for sustainable ecological practices around the world. “The people who have the secret to balancing cultural prosperity with ecological preservation  —  these are the Maya forest gardeners, the traditional farmers, and they are basically dying out,” she said.

Ford was referring to the numerous Maya peoples still populating the jungles of Mesoamerica, who are being supplanted by pioneering immigrants who see the Maya forest as a lush economic opportunity: miles of untouched forest, often under little or no environmental regulation or oversight, that can be clear-cut to make way for profitable crops and livestock such as cattle. Ford is aware of the irony in her assertion that the salvation of the Maya rainforest  —  threatened by over-farming  —  rests on the ancient agricultural practices of the group long vilified for allegedly practicing the same thing.

Ford believes the best way to preserve the rainforest is to encourage and cultivate the ancient farming techniques still in use by Maya forest farmers today. In so doing, she hopes to preserve the Maya culture, which is receding  —  along with its people  —  into the jungle. To this end, she helped to create the El Pilar natural reserve, a 5,000-acre slice of rainforest in Western Belize. El Pilar is the site of extensive Maya ruins, which Ford believes should not be fully excavated, in order to preserve the crumbling limestone that makes up their core. Ford is determined to combine this limited excavation with a return to Maya farming techniques, making it a monument to the past and a model for the future. “I want to give the people who know how to manage and conserve the forest a voice at El Pilar,” she said. “I want to show the forest garden as a living museum at El Pilar, and these people will be the showcase. These Maya farmers will be honored.”

Perhaps the two most pressing issues Ford faces in realizing her ambition for El Pilar are the entrenched ignorance about Maya farming culture, and the fact that her vision of the forest garden, though nuanced and resonant, is less immediately spectacular than the magisterial tragedy presented by cracked ruins, ornate temples, and open plazas. The first of these issues she hopes to help resolve with the publication of her article (“It’s going to be very controversial,” she predicted). And the second she hopes to assuage by turning to the burgeoning eco-tourism industry now prevalent not only in Belize, but all across the globe. “People see how important ecology is, how inseparable human activity is from the natural world. We’re looking at how to reconcile the two,” she explained. For this, she hopes El Pilar  —  and knowledge of the Maya in general  —  will provide an interesting example, one that people will visit and remember when considering the broader ecological issues now facing us.

“How do you deal with ecology today?” Ford asked. “One, you can make a preservation. Two, you can try to restore a particular ecology, like they’re trying to do out at Santa Cruz Island right now. Or three, you can reconcile preservation with restoration. You can reconcile that we are part of the ecology, and we had better find a way to work with it.” For Ford, a great way to start is by revisiting the history of the Maya, a people whose relationship to the earth she believes has been unfairly disparaged.

4•1•1 UCSB’s Reserve at El Pilar will host a fundraising bash, featuring a slide show and potluck, on Saturday, October 7, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. The benefit will be held at the UC Sedgwick Reserve. Please bring a $10 donation. For more information, call 893-8191 or visit

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