Anabel Ford believes the ancient Maya have a lot to teach today’s farmers about the sustainable use of the forest. When Western explorers emerged from the Maya forests of Mesoamerica in the middle of the 19th century, they brought with them evocative descriptions and detailed drawings of vine-entangled stone structures covered by luxuriant forest canopy. Yet today much of the forest has been stripped away and the monuments laid bare to tourists seeking the perfect tourist photo. For Anabel Ford, an Associate Laureate in the 2000 Rolex Awards, there is something wrong with this picture.
So, in an extraordinary park that spans the contentious border of Guatemala and Belize, she is providing an alternative that seeks to protect what remains of the past, while charting a sustainable course for the future of the Maya and their forest.
Studying Settlement Patterns
A researcher at the Mesoamerican Research Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Ford has worked in the Maya forests for more than two decades. While many archaeologists focus on the elaborate ceremonial centres and the sudden decline of the Maya civilisation, she has laboured at the periphery of the ancient cities, studying settlement patterns and digging up pottery shards and other clues to the life of the ordinary Maya farmers and why they thrived for as long as they did.
“I’ve spent my career mapping tiny bits of stone that might be boring to someone else, but they can tell us a lot about how normal people lived and how they used the land around them,” Ford says.
What she has discovered about the past is critically important today. As population pressures and poverty have pushed the agrarian frontier deep into Maya forests, trees have given way to ploughed fields for hybrid corn and pastures for cattle. The region is approaching an environmental crisis. Yet Ford’s research indicates that the ancient Maya’s markedly different land-management practices supported three to nine times the population maintained by modern agriculture.
By recovering what she calls the “forest garden”, Ford is trying to halt deforestation and the destruction of what remains of Maya culture in the area. (A forest garden is a small plot in the forest, cleared of dense canopy so that sunlight can penetrate, where farmers grow — in a sustainable manner — all the food, medicinal plants, and building materials they need to live well.)
Preserving a Reserve
A working forest garden is showcased in the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna, a 50-hectare archaeological site that spans the Guatemala-Belize border. Ford discovered El Pilar in 1983, and has since worked to protect it from the “success” that has plagued many Maya sites. In 1998, she convinced the two governments — which for decades have disputed their common border — to preserve a 2,000-hectare reserve, and since then has lobbied tirelessly for the implementation of a “binational” peace park. In 2004, the Guatemalan government approved the park’s master plan, and in October 2005 officials from Belize signed an agreement committing their government to the collaborative management of the park under the canopy.
"Friends of El Pilar"
El Pilar is not the only important historical or natural resource in the region that crosses international borders. Anabel Ford believes the reserve can be a model for what is possible elsewhere.
“Although the plan has been translated into the legal system and local language on each side of the border, the spirit is the same, acknowledging one resource in two nations — culture, nature and archaeology united under the canopy with the community involved and participating,” she explains.
Ford has also worked extensively with the farmers who live in the forest around El Pilar – many of whom are descendants of the ancient Maya. They manage the forest garden, sell tickets to the park, guide tourists through the forest trails, and sell crafts to visitors. A “Friends of El Pilar” group operates on both sides of the border, and Ford says the group was crucial in convincing both governments to support the park. “I want El Pilar to be a laboratory for innovation, something that brings local traditional wisdom alive, while challenging the standard views of the forest and of the Maya,” the Associate Laureate says. “The multiple strategies for using the forest practised by small holders in this area represent a model for how to save the Mesoamerican landscape, which is under grave threat from pasture and plough.”
The archaeologist helped form the “El Pilar Forest Garden Network” among farmers around the park, facilitating the sharing of knowledge and the improvement of forest-management practices. Ford calls them “the inspired heroes” of the project and “the hope for El Pilar’s future”.
El Pilar is often cited as an example of the “community archaeology” movement that avoids the historical pattern of archaeologists who show up, dig up some relics and then abandon the local community. Ford has stayed committed, dividing her time between Santa Barbara and El Pilar, working to make the park viable — at the cost, she admits, of neglecting the completion of a book on her research into El Pilar’s past.
The Future of the Past
“Anabel is one of the pioneers who is as concerned about what happens after you finish the archaeological research as about the research itself,” says Jeremy A. Sabloff, the Kahn Professor in the Social Sciences and Curator of Mesoamerican Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania. “As important as her work on early settlement patterns in the Greater Belize Valley has been as a contribution to Maya studies, the work she’s done to help develop El Pilar with an eye toward conservation, economic development and tourism has really been a model for many scholars, as well as a valuable stimulus to governments in Central America about what responsible archaeological research and subsequent development can mean.”
A Unique Approach
According to Mark Brenner, an associate professor of geological sciences at the University of Florida, Ford is an iconoclast of sorts who has left the giant monuments to others and instead focused on how ordinary people interacted with their environment. “Her approach probably won’t get her on the cover of National Geographic, although it might, but the questions she is addressing are just as important as or even more important than going after the great temples. Not all archaeologists or natural historians will agree with her on all the issues, but that’s all right, as she’s stimulating a lot of thought with her work.”
Brenner, who is also director of the Land Use and Environmental Change Institute, claims Ford’s personal commitment to El Pilar has been the key to the project’s success. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to do these kinds of multidisciplinary projects where you have to convince people that the questions you’re addressing are worthwhile, but also have to deal across international boundaries with multiple agencies and multiple communities. She’s extremely passionate about her work, and that has sustained the project,” he said.
Fighting for Success
Ford reports that the recognition from the Rolex Award gave her project a needed boost, “publicly demonstrating the validity of the concepts I’d been promoting. It was no longer just my assertions.” She says the Award raised the profile of the project in Central America, aiding her lobbying effort to get the park’s master plan implemented, and also encouraged the university where she teaches to be more visibly supportive; the university’s chancellor signed the October agreement with the Belize government.
Yet Ford has had to fight for funding. The big money available for archaeological research is still largely focused on major monuments, so community based archaeological projects must often raise their own support. In 2001, Ford convinced some local business leaders in Santa Barbara to form “Exploring Solutions Past” to support El Pilar. Last year the group released a video on the project featuring Belizean prime minister Said Musa and renowned primatologist Jane Goodall. “What makes this archaeological programme unique is that not only are its monuments and buildings being protected, but also its forest environment, an environment that sustained the Maya for centuries,” Goodall states in the video.
History and Nature
Tourism is key to El Pilar’s economic health, and Ford is adamant that what the park offers is different from the mass tourism models afforded by sites such as Mexico’s Chichen Itzá. While much of El Pilar has been explored and carefully mapped, the excavations have been backfilled and visitors today can experience a setting similar to that encountered by the first archaeologists. “I want people to engage with their surroundings, to explore for themselves the relationship of history and nature, to see bits and pieces and use their imaginations in order to understand that the mystery of the Maya is more than just looking at monuments,” Ford says.
“Archaeology under the canopy” is the way of the future, she claims. “Nature is part of archaeology, and in the 21st century we’ve got to better understand the alliance between nature, culture and archaeology. We’ll manage our heritage monuments better under the canopy, and we’ll find in our past some of the wisdom we need to better protect our disappearing natural resources.”
Published in 2006