Polycultivation mimics the forest structure, minimizing instability, preventing degradation and integrating both intensive and extensive labor techniques that maximize production. The biodiverse forest gardens constituted the strength of the Maya community in the past, as well as today, by relying on the traditional knowledge of local farming households.
The objective of polycultivation is to resolve smallholder’s self-sustaining needs. A smallholder can’t eat only grain, and therefore needs to harvest a variety of foods to meet nutritional needs. Polyculture uses land intensively and is able to support high population densities. In a place where labor is not a scarce resource, polyculture relies on the local labor force.
A forest garden consists of many species growing together, as a forest is made up of many different species. The forest garden may look wild, but it isn’t. The forest garden is carefully managed; once the forest is managed, it becomes a garden. Debris is moved from a seedling growing on the forest floor to help ensure its maturation; plants are taken from one part of the forest to another to facilitate growth; unwanted sprouts are removed; trees are shaped to keep branches low to harvest fruits easily or to remove limbs for lumber. Trees and shrubs are irregularly spaced, their position is determined by the landscape; plants may not be hand-sown, but driven by natural reproduction strategies (seeds blown in by wind, through animal droppings, etc.) and where desired they will be nurtured and encouraged to grow, creating a scattered, “random” pattern within the garden.
Polycultivation increases biodiversity. Because a field in polycultivation does not require the harvesting of every plant at one time, the soil stays shaded by canopy trees, retaining moisture. The roots of the plants not being harvested hold the soil in place, preventing erosion from downpours of rain. Polycultivation diverts pests by maintaining herbs that they prefer over the crops. This strategy also encourages species diversity, providing nutrition for insects, birds and animals. In addition, fewer chemicals and fossil fuels are needed for production, therefore reducing pollution.
How does labor and skill, instead of capital (petrochemicals and tractors), support smallholders in emerging economies?
Industrial chemicals and heavy machinery not only require money; they require extensive knowledge for use and operation. The expansion of many large companies affects the soil by impaction, the drying up of streams, and converting the land from forest to cropland. Utilizing local labor and knowledge passed down through generations in harvesting, production and marketing techniques relies on local people, is more sustainable, and supports the local economy.
The forest gardeners use natural fertilizers (compost), natural pesticides (certain plants that defend against pests), and non-intensive harvesting to keep their land, water, and community safe from the harmful effects of petrochemicals and impacts of heavy machinery. By using local labor, money stays within the community instead of going to overseas corporations. Plants are often shared between neighbors and friends, through cuttings, seeds and some grafting. Local families can sustain themselves by maintaining a forest garden because of the crop diversity from vegetables, herbs, medicinals and other cultivars.
In Belize, Heriberto Cocom, master forest gardener, states that “people could afford to maintain [forest gardens] because each and every one of us here in the villages or, throughout the whole nation, has at least a small parcel of land where we can make our forest garden. So I would encourage every [person] who has land to do so.”
Polycultivation allows farmers to harvest plants throughout the year so that they are guaranteed food and income. For example, in the Maya forest, Alfonso Tzul tells us there are different varieties of plums that ripen in different months-April, May, July, August and October. If the farmer has all of these varieties, s/he can harvest throughout the year, in addition to harvesting other fruits and vegetables that mature in other months.
Polycultivation techniques allow for a diversity of crops in a small area. This concept therefore allows the nutritional needs of a community to be grown within that community. Each family then has the capacity to feed itself and rely less on the world market. If smallholders (rural farmers) in developing countries embrace the concept of polycultivation, their dependence on more developed countries for food may decrease.
Corn is a staple and although the forest garden provides many different sources of food, people still need the sustenance provided by corn in order to maintain a healthy diet. A forest garden allocates space to fruits and vegetables that cannot be planted with corn, but the cornfield also provides required nutrition.
Eco-Archaeology - Then and Now
The Maya Forest is the largest contiguous humid, subtropical forest remaining in Central America, spreading through Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. The ancient Maya thrived in present-day northern Central America, from the Yucatan of southern Mexico to northwestern Honduras and their ancestors continue life in those places.
Close to their homes, they cultivate plants that require intensive labor techniques (for example, those plants needing frequent watering); plants that are very valuable (so they can protect them from harm or monitor their growth closely); and plants that they harvest regularly or are a burden to carry a long distance. These plots are called home, infield, or intensive gardens.
Those plants that don’t require such intensive demands can be farther away and are generally 1-2 hours’ walk from their homes (4-8 km). These plots are called forest, outfield or extensive gardens. They may set up a field house on this land so less time is spent traveling to and from each garden. These garden plots create a pattern called “infield-outfield” that fits with the archaeological settlement patterns we find in the Maya forest.
The Maya depended on agriculture for their survival. They faced the same uncertainties that the contemporary forest gardener faces today, like heavy rains, soil erosion, and population demands. The archaeological evidence shows that urban areas, like those of our time, were densely settled and surrounded by home gardens. Bordering these permanent communities were sparsely settled outfields and forest gardens, seasonally occupied depending on the demands of food production. This fits the model defined by the infield-outfield pattern that we see in contemporary settlements.
Today we find that there is a higher percentage of useful plants in forested areas where the Maya lived than forest where people did not live. This suggests that the Maya manipulated their forest, favoring plants that were useful to them, changing the composition of the forest.
At the height of the ancient Maya civilization, the forest was domesticated. Since the abandonment of their cities, the Maya forest returned to an untamed, or feral, state. We know that the Maya domesticated their forest because the total number of plants (biodiversity) found in the forest is high, yet when you compare different forest areas to each other, they are similar. Of the dominant species in the forest, 90% are useful in the daily life of the people today and all of these plants are found in the forest garden. The Maya influenced the structure of the forest by caring for plants useful to them.
The Maya expressed their relationship with their environment through language. For example, the Mayan word for climax forest, K'ax, is used in significant combinations which suggest complex adaptations and interactions with the environment. Kanan K'ax describes a “well cared for” forest and also means “learned from”; it involves teaching and caring, evoking a concept of stewardship. Ka'kab K'ax indicates a forest with good agricultural soil quality. These linguistic terms describe the economic qualities of the forest and indicate long-term human coexistence with the environment.
Look at the examples below:
The objective of archaeology under the canopy is to reveal and frame the Maya archaeological monuments of El Pilar in the context of traditional forest gardening practices, creating a way to educate local and international visitors on the values of the Maya forest. At the same time, it will provide a vehicle for continuing the wisdom of the forest garden in the context of ecotourism.
Ronnie Martinez, Winceslao Cabb, Henry Sanchez, and Abimael Waight currently make up the group of graduated students from Sacred Heart Junior College in San Ignacio, Cayo, who are continuing the forest garden work of the BRASS/El Pilar Program’s 2004 field season. The Enlaces are an enthusiastic, educated, intelligent, and humorous group whose help with the El Pilar Forest Garden Network has been essential.
They have forged partnerships with the forest gardeners around El Pilar and are currently working, in coordination with a local non-governmental organization, Help for Progress, on a nursery for the forest gardeners to grow and share plants. They are helping the forest gardeners pass on their knowledge to future generations by learning from them and utilizing that knowledge to teach others.
Each of the Enlaces hopes one day to have his own forest garden, helping to preserve the forest and utilize it in a sustainable manner. They are bridges between the older generation of Maya forest gardeners and a younger generation (embedded in their name “Enlaces” or “links” in Spanish). They are beginning to understand the traditional Maya agricultural systems and how they can contribute to a sustainable future.
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