What Makes a Farmer a Forest Gardener?
In the words of a forest gardener, a forest gardener is someone who cultivates a diverse forest garden and milpa to:
takes care of forest plants, insects, and animals
promotes the forest’s biodiversity
provides for their families
There is no typical forest gardener as they have varying specialties such as medicinal plants, ornamentals, construction, etc. The possibilities are endless, but the essential idea remains: humans can inhabit and manage the forest while promoting growth, prosperity, and diversity.
What is a Forest Garden?
A forest garden is an unplowed, tree-dominated agricultural field that is cultivated year-round. The forest garden is part of the traditional Maya land management system called the milpa cycle.
It sustains biodiversity and animal habitat while cultivating diversity in plants for an array of needs such as food, shelter, medicine, household products, and more. As one of the most diverse domestic cultivation systems, 370 different plant species were found in only 19 forest gardens.
How is the Maya Forest a Garden?
Alfonso Tzul, a modern Maya farmer, describes how forest gardens came to be: “God created plants and animals and the world around us. Trees grew in the forest, seeds spread, birds sang, and animals flourished. All was already there. Man came along and preferred this plant, favored that seed, enjoyed those birds, and supported those animals, creating and using the forest as a garden to sustain those plants and animals.”
We often think of the rainforest as untouched by humans. In reality, the Maya forest can be understood as the garden of the ancient Maya. They have evolved their agriculture practices over four millennia to create sustainable forest gardens to provide for their needs for food, fiber, medicine, and construction while enriching the forest.
The composition of the Maya Forest today reveals the Maya’s intentional cultivation of the forest. Although there are more than 24,000 plants, it is relatively homogenous with widely spaced areas sharing from 53-71% of the plant species. In comparison to the Amazon forest, study plots rarely have more than 10% of species in common even when the plots are next to each other. Along with the fact that 90% of the plants in the Maya Forests are useful to humans, this evidence indicates considerable human influence in the development of the Maya Forest.
The Maya still use the same land management traditions today that mimic the forest structure, prevent soil degradation, and increase yields without compromising the health of the ecosystems.