At the height of its power, around 900 AD, the Mayan empire stretched from Southern Mexico to the middle of Central America. In the last 20 years, Santa Barbara archaeologist Anabel Ford and an international force of researchers have been slowly rebuilding the fallen civilization deep in the rainforests of Guatemala and Belize.
Last week, Vilma Fialko, a researcher with 30 years experience studying Mayan culture and a representative of the Institute of Anthropology and History in Guatemala, signed a Memorandum of Understanding that established the Guatemalan government’s agreement to work with UCSB and the government of Belize to fund research and establish a peace park in the 5,000-acre archaeological site known as El Pilar. Signing with the Guatemalan dignitary were Chancellor Henry T. Yang, of UCSB; Ford, who is also director of the MesoAmerican Research Center at UCSB; Sarah Fenstermaker, director of the Institute of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research; and Randall Fox, secretary of the nonprofit organization Exploring Solutions Past. In a speech before the panel and audience, Yang said that Ford’s work “gives us insight into the lives and the value of the past.”
The ancient city of El Pilar sits on the long-disputed boundary between Guatemala and Belize and both countries maintain the area as separate natural reserves. Ford and her colleagues wish to create a bi-national peace park to be maintained by both countries as an eco-tourism destination. Fialko said that the Guatemalan government has already committed half a million dollars to developing the site and the government of Belize has its own equivalent plan of development. This will also include the development of surrounding rural communities to accommodate the new tourism industry. Fialko estimates that within four years, guided tour groups in vans will be able to leave from the surrounding settlements and enter the park to explore.
However, the researchers wish to do more than restore the ruins of the city; they intend to preserve the surrounding natural environment as well. Ford’s research has revealed that the forests surrounding the structures at El Pilar are not wild overgrowth but actually more like well manicured gardens of useful plant species such as fruit-bearing trees and other flora with medicinal uses.
It is this model of sustainable agriculture that Ford and a panel of UCSB experts discussed in a conference preceding the signing. According to Ford, the Maya forest is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world; more than 90 percent of the plants found there are useful today. It is in this way that Ford came to refer to the forest as a manmade garden and its modern inhabitants, the modern descendents of the Maya, as “forest gardeners.”
Ford hopes El Pilar research will help scientists understand the Mayas’ current problems, present some solutions for climate change, and inform modern humans in our own struggle with a worsening environment. “Humans are a major impetus for global climate change,” said paleontologist Bruce Tiffney, who is the dean of the College of Creative Studies at UCSB. But he added that we are the only creatures with the ability to realize what they have caused and initiate change. He favors research into the Maya forest gardens because he sees it as “an ecological model in which humans fit, not as a disturbance.”
The signing is an important political step for both countries, and an economic victory for the local inhabitants of El Pilar as well as a cultural success for the modern Maya whose lifestyle and traditions will be preserved. But ultimately, the Peace Park will benefit the whole world through its example of sustainable agriculture, international cooperation, and natural conservation.
For the tireless Ford, who is credited as the first archaeologist to explore the region, the signing of the memorandum comes 20 years after her initial explorations at El Pilar. But it’s just the beginning of her goal of uniting two nations who have been at odds for decades under the goal of developing a shared space to celebrate their mutual cultural heritage.