Maya Forest Garden 

by McNab Editorial Team
forest garden

A forest garden is an agricultural field that is unplowed, mostly dominated by trees and is cultivated all year round.  These gardens require special knowledge and skill.  When managed properly, it is sustainably diverse for plants as well as animals that together supply a variety of human needs such as food, shelter, medicine, and many others. A forest garden can be managed using only local resources such as refuse (compost), dead weeds, ashes from kitchen fires, and manure. These enrich the soil, maximize fertility and the productivity of the land, eliminating the use of chemical additives such as pesticides or fertilizers. 

The Maya Forest Garden

A forest garden is the last vestige of the traditional Maya land management of the milpa (small farm) to garden cycle.  It is the most diverse domestic cultivation system in the world. A model to be followed can be found at the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna in the Cayo district, only 12 miles from San Ignacio.  In a network of 19 gardens, researchers have found 370 different species of plants cultivated by forest gardeners. 

These forest gardeners support diversity because of their rich traditional knowledge of plant use. When nurtured, these plants yield a bounty of food, medicine, spices, dyes, ornaments, construction and household products, toys, beverages, rituals, fodder, and more.  No wonder the Maya flourished.  They had respect and knowledge of nature, so they were able to live a prosperous, comfortable life. These gardens are proof that they knew how to harness the productivity of the land while protecting their environment. They were able to build their homes and manage their resources in order to feed their large populations. 

forest garden

El Pilar

The El Pilar program has also helped to establish an educational forest garden at the village primary school in Santa Familia.  The school has been named Kanan K’aax. In Maya, it means “well-cared-for forest.” This teaching garden has been reproduced to transmit the most vital aspects of ancient Maya life and to foster the propagation of their system in practical use today. 

The Kanan K’aax school garden is a community teaching site that can grow as a local, regional, as well as an international center for the study and implementation of traditional Maya practices. The school is now under the care of the El Pilar network and the Santa Familia Primary School.  Although it is a huge undertaking, this endeavor has attracted both local and international enthusiasts, at every level of their education.  Classes are practical and hands-on, providing the fundamental knowledge of traditional practices. Included in the classes is the study of the uses of plants and the key to nature conservation and continued prosperity, of vital importance in this delicate period of climate change. 

To recap, here is a look at the advantages of forest gardens:  they reduce temperature; increase biodiversity; conserve water; build fertility; reduce erosion; care for people.  Truly, a past solution for a present problem. 

Written by Nelita Castillo

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