UCSB Archeologist Anabel Ford Rewrites the Book on Maya Farming

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

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

“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

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

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 marc.ucsb.edu/elpilar.


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