The ancient Maya landscape was a mosaic that was managed for millennia as a sustainable resource to support a flourishing civilization. The active tending of the forest and ancient Maya farming practices have been passed down through generations and today holds answers to questions of sustainability and resource management. Contemporary Maya farmers maintain forest gardens, based on their rich traditional knowledge of domestic plants and sustainable techniques, to create the most diverse domestic system in the world. To understand the archaeological settlement patterns of El Pilar, Dr. Ford identified traditional farmers and began to inventory plants for food, medicine, spices, dyes, ornaments, construction, household products, toys, beverages, rituals, fodder, and more. She found that nearly ninety percent of the plant life surrounding Maya housing settlements was useful for food, medicine or other household needs. This exploration of the area prompted a local response, bringing a group of local forest gardeners together to educate the youth and community at large.
The El Pilar Forest Garden Network (EPFGN), established in Belize in September 2008, is a collective of traditional Maya farmers who together manage nearly 300 hectares of land. Their traditional milpa skills and their practical investment in the Maya forest garden set them apart from the conventional and monoculture industrial farmers in the area. Maya farmers are known as forest gardeners because their traditional multi-crop farming methods actually encourage the biodiversity and growth of the forest. They are exemplary agriculturalists, the ultimate conservationists, among the original permaculturalists, and the unsung heroes of the Maya forest.
Conservation is increasingly imperative for the world. It has never been more important to learn from indigenous groups, such as the Maya, that have centuries of accumulated knowledge of conservation and coexistence with their environment.
For more information, check out the El Pilar Forest Garden Network website at mayaforestgardeners.org