The Gift of the Maya

July 28, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedIt takes a bit of time for the elegance of a food forest to emerge, something on the order of decades. Strolling the garden through the morning mist in a hot Tennessee summer, we tried to remember what this landscape looked like 21 years ago, when we moved to this site, set up our yurt and started in on our little corner of paradise. 

What we see today does not remotely resemble what was here then. Then there was a wire-fenced, stony horse paddock in a re-emerging poplar forest. The deep soil tilth now is blanketed in thick vines, their giant leaves hiding pumpkins, squashes and melons. Bamboo cathedrals twined with akebia and passionfruit arch 70 feet (20 meters) over a duck pond next to our cob henhouse. As we let out our poultry for their daily bug chase, bullfrogs croak and leap away. A snapping turtle submerges beneath the mat of duckweed and hyacinths at the water’s edge. All around us figs, peaches, apples, pears, blueberries, cranberries, cherries, plums and persimmons bend down boughs under the weight of their fruit, rabbits stealing out to grab a windfall and then hop back to cover, while high up in the oaks, beech, butternuts and hickories, squirrel forest wardens check the progress of their winter larder.

All this complexity, shrouded in mist and glistening in dew, would not be called orderly by farmers trained in Ag schools or raised in a tradition of straight rows and powerful machines with air-conditioned cabs. They can pump food from the earth the way you would pump barrels of oil, but not without depleting reserves accumulated over eons. As they pour on chemicals, the genetically monocultured crops gradually but inexorably lose nutrient density and attract predators. 

Our general health as a society reflects that loss and malaise. Family treasures are squandered on biotech voodoo and Roundup potions in the pursuit of a false paradigm of technological progress, but the escalating fixes are unable to stem the tide of biological entropy. And all the while, just beyond the fences, magical weeds of awesome power dance in anticipation of the invaders’ surrender and patiently await the return of their lost domain. 

We have been reading The Maya Forest Garden by Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh. It tells the tale of a civilization that weathered many climate changes, foreign conquests and failed attempts at cultural genocide. That civilization is still there today, after 8,000 years. There are more children born and raised in families today whose first language is a Mayan dialect than during the Classic period 1400 years ago. 

When the first two-leggeds arrived in Mesoamerica over 10,000 years ago, the region was cool and arid – akin to the Great Plains of central Canada. Over the next 2,000 years, as the Hemisphere continued to emerge from the great Ice Age, Mesoamerica became a warm and wet tropical region, reaching an early heating peak during the Holocene Thermal Maximum before settling back to the wet tropics we find there today. 

Ford and Nigh disagree with popular myths told by historians of rapacious city-states that denuded their landscape to bake lime for painting temples and then starved. They write:

Image RemovedThe Maya and their ancestors have been living in this region for more than 10,000 years. Why would they cut down the forest that was their garden? Even after concerted efforts by governments and private interests to convert forest to pasture over the past half of the twentieth century, and after development schemes to introduce commercial annual monocrops into the perennial polycultivated croplands, and in spite of global trade agreements that have jeopardized the smallholder, the Maya forest has lived to tell the tale. 


It is important to understand that the developed European culture views agriculture and forests as incompatible. That idea is embedded in our understanding of "arable" [Latin: to plow] and in the Malthusian view that agricultural lands are finite, based on the medieval concept of "assart," the act of converting forest into arable land. 


To evaluate ancient land use, we must conjure a world without the plow, without cattle or horses, where work in the fields was accomplished by hand, and where transport was on foot.

According to Ford and Nigh, the Maya forest garden was not just an indelible feature that withstood the rise and fall of successive empires, but holds, in its ramblings and roots, a hidden-in-plain-sight way through our present crises. 

We argue that conservation of the Maya forest must engage the traditional farmer, whose skills and knowledge created – and continue to maintain – the forest and its culture.

Image RemovedLand use changed over time based on social constraints. In ancient times, smallholders who produced a variety of goods and services from the forest were at times compelled to increase production to pay taxes and to feed the elites and their armies. This process continues today. Greater demands for exports from the forest require denser populations, because working hilly terrain without machines or animals requires hands and feet. Today it may imply imported labor, a form of economic slavery not much different than in the Classic Maya era. To the extent that human labor for cultivation and transportation has been replaced with fossil energy, the requirements for human slaves have diminished.

One barrel of oil has 5.7 million BTUs of energy, or 1700 kWh. An average adult can, in hard labor, generate 0.6 kWh/day. That’s 11 years of human labor packed into each barrel of oil. Put another way, fifty dollars currently buys you eleven petroleum slaves working year-round at hard labor. What would those slaves cost if they were human? Ten thousand dollars? Half a million dollars? It depends on where you get them and what tasks they perform for you. 

Thanks to petroslavery, we have higher wages, higher profits, really cheap products and more people doing little to nothing. The average USAnian uses 60 barrels per year (or equivalent coal, gasoline and fracked gas) or roughly 660 fossil slaves standing at the beck and call of each and every citizen. Those numbers are quite a bit less in the Mayan world today, but nonetheless significant, and growing. Farmers don’t have to carry corn and mangos to the city on their backs, although no one has yet found a way to machine-harvest cacao or spray-pollinate vanilla vines.

Nonetheless, extraction costs for fossil fuels are rising — 17% per year for the past 10 years. That drives up energy costs and as that price goes up, its like having to pay your slaves. Profits decline, and some slaves get laid off.

As we lose our energy slaves, will we go back to sending our army to snatch human slaves from weaker or less militaristic neighbors? The Classic Maya were something like that. With cheap slave energy gained by conquest they paved roads and built pyramids. Many historians assume they overran their resources or had a slave revolt, but Ford and Nigh have eliminated ecocide, because food resources never diminished. Slavery has its limits and the Maya’s slaves may have reached theirs. 
Misleading assumptions about Mayan ecological demise, and climate over 10,000 years, came from paleoclimatic reconstructions based on lake sediments and pollen counts. Ford and Nigh point out that the pollen data emphasize windborne pollen, and yet, in the tropics, all but about 2 percent of plants are pollenated by bees, birds, bats and butterflies. 

Ford and Nigh picked up clues from ramon trees and grassland forbs, which were better indicators of the milpa cycle. While climate perturbations, sometimes severe, occurred repeatedly, the heaviest climate changes came in the Early Holocene, before the appearance of the Maya. The milpa system evolved in that era, as proof of concept for climate-resilient agriculture.

The Maya resource system, based on the milpa forest garden cycle of the past and present, adapts to extreme conditions by moderating the impacts of deluges and managing land cover against drought. The system was resilient under conditions of change, and the climatic stability of the Classic promoted the rise of the Maya civilization.

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Milpa farming: patch clearance and rotational forest plots


Ford and Nigh conclude that the Classic Era, while it was not without impact — evidenced by high phosphorus lake sediment loading and diminishing soil quality — did not end from an environmental collapse. And yet, 1100 years ago, the Empire broke down and retreated back into the jungle. Civic centers gradually depopulated and rural farms resumed their ubiquity. Soil quality began to improve and runoff to decrease.

The Maya did not disappear, they dispersed. Having little to interest outside invaders, the last of their strongholds, at Nojpeten, was not conquered by the Spanish until 1697, on the Ides of March. (In ancient Greece, that date also marked Pharmakos, which involved beating an old man dressed in animal skins and driving him from the city. History may not repeat, but it rhymes.)
When the human slavery system ended, it was not replaced by machine or animal slaves (they had neither). It was replaced with tree crops – vegetable slaves —  toiling without complaint, providing myriad household and ecological services, and asking only the occasional tender loving care. Skills that could glean the most from any terrain were passed generation to generation down to the present. 

In the Cartesian view of the world everything is separated into chemicals, physical properties, or energy systems. The quantum entanglement of the real world is much less simple. It took a few thousand years for humans to find harmony with their environment and to co-evolve the comfortable Holocene climate, as much a product of human respect for the limits of the natural world as of galactic and planetary cycles. No doubt some shaman warned a Neolithic hunting party not to slay the last mastodon, but they didn’t listen, and we got an Ice Age, or worse, agriculture.

Once the original instructions were forgotten, thanks in no small measure to electric lights, television and the internet, the Holocene weave began unraveling. Biodiversity and soil fertility plummeted, population skyrocketed, and the popular culture of idle elite tilted to the kinky, bloodthirsty and perverse. If this sounds like the Maya, that would not be far wrong, but we are speaking of the times we live in. We have lost our way. 

The Maya forest shows us a way home, should we choose to take it. 

This past Thursday, NASA senior scientist James Hansen and 17 co-authors published a paper, “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2°C global warming is highly dangerous,” in the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics discussion group. The paper noted that despite repeated warnings for more than 25 years, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase and fossil fuels remain the primary energy source. 

"The argument is made that it is economically and morally responsible to continue fossil fuel use for the sake of raising living standards, with expectation that humanity can adapt to climate change and find ways to minimize effects via advanced technologies," the paper says. " We suggest that a strategic approach relying on adaptation to such consequences is unacceptable to most of humanity…."

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Modern farming: trying to recreate Normandy in Mexico and Belize

Specifically, the authors, making an end run around lengthy peer review in order to address delegates who will gather at the UN climate summit in Paris in December, point out that even if the UNdenouement is extraordinarily successful and achieves its 2-degree target, civilization will not avert catastrophe. 

As Natalia Shakhova, a professor at the University Alaska Fairbanks, told Dahr Jamail of Truthout  last January, the transition from the methane being frozen in the permafrost, either on land or in the shallow continental shelves, "is not gradual. When it comes to phase transition, it appears to be a relatively short, jump-like transformation from one state of the process to another state. The difference between the two states is like the difference between a closed valve and an open valve. This kind of a release is like the unsealing of an over-pressurized pipeline."

Shakhova has been warning for years that a 50-gigaton "burp" of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost beneath the East Siberian sea is "highly possible at anytime." That would be the equivalent of 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide (GtCO2), three thousand times what is released from the Siberian shelf in an average year. Humans have released approximately 1,475 GtCO2 since 1850 from fossil fuel burning and land use changes. Ninety percent of that was absorbed by the ocean; some frozen in ocean sediments as clathrates. 

The Permian mass extinction of approximately 95 percent of all species on the planet 250 million years ago was triggered by a massive lava flow in an area of Siberia that led to an increase in global temperatures of 6 degrees Celsius. The lava caused the melting of frozen methane deposits under the seas. Released into the atmosphere, the Permian methane "burp" caused temperatures to skyrocket. 

Hansen’s group warns that is not too late to avert a similar fate this time, but it will take more than reducing carbon emissions. 

Rapid transition to abundant affordable carbon-free electricity is the core requirement, as that would also permit production of net-zero-carbon liquid fuels from electricity. The rate at which CO2 emissions must be reduced is about 6%/yr to reach 350 ppm atmospheric CO2 by about 2100, under the assumption that improved agricultural and forestry practices could sequester 100 GtC. 

Actually, we know that improved agricultural and forestry practices can sequester on the order of 10 GtC annually, and could return the atmosphere and oceans to pre-industrial greenhouse chemistries (250 ppmv CO2e) by 2100 if scaled rapidly. We know that from studying, among other clues, the Maya forest.

Ford and Nigh conclude:

If we take these real human and ecological costs into account and systematically compare them to the intensive Maya milpa, we find that milpa is neither primitive nor unproductive and is positive for human health and the environment. Food produced by the milpa is of high quality, as it is based on the natural fertility maintained in the forest garden cycle, where regenerated woodlands continually restore minerals and organic matter. High biodiversity assures that pesticides are unnecessary and all wastes are recycled in the field. Water is managed by the conservation of vegetation and by the infiltration of rainwater stored in the soil. A healthy and natural relationship is fostered for animals that are attracted to the secondary vegetation of the milpa forest garden, resulting in a kind of semi-domestication based on the landscape. Dependence on fossil fuels is nonexistent, and far from contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, the Maya milpa creates a long-term store of carbon in the soil. 

Significantly, the milpa and its diversity provide a livelihood for farm families and a food surplus for local markets.


Yet milpa agroforestry seems to violate the master narrative of our times: the incessant march of progress from hunter-gatherer to complex sedentary agriculture. The Eurocentric vision assumes that Western civilization is the pinnacle of human progress and that disappearing cultures can only aspire to emulate it. Not only in the popular mind but also in the view of scientists, politicians, and technicians, it is capitalist industrial agriculture that is the unquestioned standard of production; all previously existing forms are, in this view, ready to be replaced. 

We must vindicate the milpa forest garden and similarly sophisticated systems of human ecology that are native to their place. Their intricacy, subtlety, and contribution to our environmental balances are critical to our future.

The gift of the Maya, at least some of them, is to never have forgotten. The gift of Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh, and James Hansen, after rigorous lifetimes in this arcane scientific pursuit, is the retelling of that story to a world audience.

Albert Bates

Albert Bates was a civil sector representative at the Copenhagen climate conference, trying to point the world back towards a stable atmosphere using soils and trees.  His book BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth has just been released and his book Plastics: From Pollution to Evolution is due out in April 2019. Past books include Climate in Crisis and The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook. Working with the Global Ecovillage Network he has taught appropriate technology, natural building and permaculture to students from more than 60 nations. A former environmental rights lawyer, paramedic, brick mason, flour miller, and horse trainer, Albert Bates received the Right Livelihood Award in 1980 as part of the steering committee of Plenty, working to preserve the cultures of indigenous peoples, and board of directors of The Farm, a pioneering intentional community in Tennessee for the past 40 years. He has taught appropriate technology, natural building and permaculture to students from more than sixty nations. A co-founder and past president of the Global Ecovillage Network, he is presently GEN’s representative to the UN climate talks. When not tinkering with fuel wringers for algae, hemp cheeses, or pyrolizing cookstoves, he teaches permaculture, ecovillage design and natural building and is a frequent guest on the ETC Podcast.

Tags: Culture & Behavior, food forests