This active forest garden contains hardwoods, corn, banana, papaya, mango, allspice, and squash, all growing together in layers where the tall shade the small.
Macduff Everton

When it comes to Maya archaeology, there are few characters more colorful, captivating, and controversial than UCSB professor Anabel Ford. Not only does she advocate keeping the ancient Maya temples covered with foliage rather than exposing their majesty to the elements – as is done to most Central American archaeological sites – Ford disagrees with the long prevailing wisdom that the Maya people were addicted to the ecologically unsound slash-and-burn agriculture.

Rather, Ford, who does her field work at a site in western Belize called El Pilar, believes that the Maya were “forest gardeners,” and cultivated their surroundings into a useful, healthy jungle. It’s a view shared nowadays by many members of the villages near El Pilar, and they are turning back to gardening the forest despite being outside forces encouraging them to do monoculture and continue slashing and burning. In anticipation of Ford’s annual “Fiesta El Pilar” – which happens this year at the Museum of Natural History and is hosting some of the Maya gardeners themselves – I interviewed two of El Pilar’s indigenous forest-tenders via email.

This is the extended version of those interviews, which were conducted with “master” forest gardener Alfonso Tzul and healer Beatrice Waight. From the village of San Antonio, Tzul previously worked with Belize’s Department of Agriculture and has written extensively on both Maya traditions and the practice of forest gardening. He speaks Mayan, Spanish, English, and Creole. A midwife and shaman, Waight is from the village if Santa Familia, where she’s been practicing traditional healing for more than 30 years. Both will be in town this weekend for the Fiesta El Pilar.

Interview with Alfonso Tzul

What was life like before the El Pilar Program?

I first got to know El Pilar as a farming area in 1967. At that time, farmers in Calla Creek went to camp in the area to make their plantations. They would go back to camp in the area during the harvest in October each year. They told us it was a very rich land and it abounded with game. Later, I discovered that it was also a log stocking site for mahogany works in the 1930s and 1940s. Then I visited the area in 1972 and discovered that it was also an ancient city, which was hardly mentioned or known otherwise.

How long have you been a forest gardener?

I grew up in San Antonio, a descendant of Maya farmers. From the age of 10 years (1951), I accompanied my father to his farm. I loved the farm work, especially the many varieties and species of crops that my father cultivated. I then dreamed of the day that I would have my own farm.

Fortunately, I began working with the Ministry of Agriculture in 1958 and, in 1959, I went to study agriculture in Puerto Rico. I returned to Belize in 1961. In 1964, I established my own farm. I planted it with as many species of fruit trees as was available in Belize. So I can say that from 1964 I have been a forest gardener, although I did not know it then.

In 1977, while I was teaching at the Belize College of Agriculture, I began to see the forest as an integral part of the farming of crops, especially with respect to the utilization of marginal lands as private farms. This special interest has now grown to a definite outline in my mind and interest today.

How has the El Pilar Forest Gardener Program made your life better?

The El Pilar Forest Garden Program has given us the opportunity to see the forest as a very valuable resource. It has also given me the opportunity to improve my appreciation of this valuable resource and to share my knowledge of same with others and to encourage them to preserve their forest heritage for posterity. I am convinced that those who own a piece of forest land are better able to face the challenges to earn an honest living with their resources.

Narciso Torres (left) and Alfonso Tzul, two El Pilar farmers, will visit the El Pilar Festival at the Natural History Museum this Saturday.
Macduff Everton

What have you learned from the program?

I’ve learned that the forest can be manipulated to serve the needs of those who control it. It can produce what is most needed and that it is a resource that cannot be exhausted, provided it is used wisely. Today I have it clear in my mind what are the species of trees that should be included in a forest garden and any piece of forest can be so cared that it should yield bountifully to its user.

Do you believe your children and future generations will continue to garden the forest?

For our children to continue our practices, we must cultivate that practice in them from an early age. Lamentably, this is not happening in many cases, and many farmers’ children are reluctant to continue the farm work. As for myself, I have two sons who are continuing in my footsteps. I can only hope that they will cultivate the same desire in their sons. Beyond the next generation is hard to tell, yet given the need for forest products, I believe forest gardening will be a specialized field in the next 50 years, much like mono crops of the west today.

What makes the monoculture preferred by “Westerners” problematic?

It is very challenging. First, because it requires large sums of capital. Second, it requires applying an extraordinary amount of chemicals to the soil. Third, it creates a large amount of waste in the crop cultivated, such as papayas not fit for the export market. Fourth, but most important, the producer makes little money despite all his efforts. It is the exporter and distributors who make all the money.

Finally, the idea of monoculture is very much against our inherited attitude as Maya farmers who until during the last 50 years were self efficient with our food requirements.

People are often taught that the Maya area an extinct civilization, which is clearly false. What does being a Maya mean to you?

To me, being a Maya is no different from a person being an American because he lives in the U.S.A. or a person being a German because he lives in Germany. I am proud to be a Maya; I accept it as a gift of God. I may look different and speak different, but I am a person just as anybody else in the world. Furthermore, I descended from an ancient civilization which is as good as any that has existed in the world. Given the opportunities, we can achieve all the goodies in the world.

Unfortunately many people (especially intellectuals and those in authority) have looked upon Mayas as uncivilized people needing to be civilized. Consequently, they have not only looked down upon them, but have also endeavored to enslave them and oppress them in many subtle ways. For example, in my school days we were taught that the Mayas disappeared. Nobody knows what became of them. Then they said that we are INDIANS. THIS IS NOT TRUE, yet many of them insist in continuing to call us Maya Indians instead of just Mayas. Those in authority continue to do these things in their documents.

Due to these few things I have mentioned, many Mayas – ignorant of their history – endeavor to hide behind their Spanish names, to hide their identity by speaking Spanish, and doing their best to forget their language. Some even hate the fact that they come from Maya villages. A few have even changed their Maya surnames to Spanish surnames. To these people who number in the thousands in Belize, being a Maya is a curse. We hope educating them with their history will help.

Interview with Beatrice Waight

What was life like before the El Pilar program?

Well, life for me before the El Pilar program was nothing much of a difference than what it is today, in the sense that I have been engaged in planting and harvesting herbs [for decades]. But since then, I realized that I had the gift of an herb collector and now it makes me envision the greatest gift of life is plants, as they are our source of oxygen and they aid in healing many ailments.

How long have you been a forest gardener?

I have been a forest gardener for over 25 years. I so much enjoy the freshness of the air and smell of plants and the color itself helps me in relaxing and keeping away stress. It’s my hobby.

How has the El Pilar Forest Gardener program made your lives better?

The El Pilar Forest Gardener program has made my life better in such a way that I now take the time to train my family members so as to empower them to the many uses of many local plants and practice reforestation, so as to not have our second hand doctors (plants) disappear.

What have you learned from the program?

I have learned from the program that they do annual events in a small village in western Belize called Bullet Tree Falls where the El Pilar archeological site is situated. Also, they are engaged in educating children in the primary grades about the importance of plants and their medicinal purposes. But the most important information I learned is that working together with one aim about plants can make a difference and definitely lead to a healthy environment and thus a healthy life.

Do you believe your children and future generations will continue to garden the forest?

Of course, I do believe some of my children and their future generations will practice forest gardening, not only because I am their mother, but because they see for themselves that plants do have medicinal properties. And with the rising cost of health care services, sometimes it’s better and less time consuming.


Fiesta El Pilar happens this Saturday, October 12, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., at the Museum of Natural History‘s Farrand Hall, with food, drinks, discussion, music, and more. For info, see and, call 893-8191, or email


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