Anabel Ford believes the ancient Maya have a lot to teach people today about the sustainable use of the forest. Working with a local group of indigenous forest gardeners, Ford, who was an Associate Laureate in the 2000 Rolex Awards, has helped construct a model garden at an elementary school in Santa Familia, a village in Belize 12 kilometres from El Pilar, an ancient Maya city that spans the Guatemala-Belize border.
More than 100 students will work in the new garden each year, learning about plants and trees as they come to understand and appreciate a model of forest management passed down from their Maya ancestors. An archaeologist and anthropologist, Ford directs the MesoAmerican Resource Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara and has worked in the Maya forests for over two decades. She was interviewed by Paul Jeffrey for the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.
How did the school garden come about?
A student of mine, accompanied by two forest gardeners, was doing a survey in 2007 of other forest gardeners about which plants they had in their own individual plots. When they visited an old forest gardener named Alcario Cano, he realized that the three forest gardeners together knew a lot more about his landscape than he knew alone. So he asked if he could accompany them on their visits. That spirit caught on, and by the time they ended up surveying 18 forest gardens, they had almost 18 people in the entourage.
These men and women were interested in how to share the knowledge they possessed. So they formed an organization – the El Pilar Forest Garden Network – and asked the local school if they could utilize some unused land for a model garden. They named it Känan K’aax – “well tended forest” in the local Yukatek Maya language.
Where did you get the plants?
In 2008, the forest gardeners selectively cleared the land keeping useful trees, shrubs and herbs for the school garden and they brought plants from their own home nurseries, creating zones in the garden for herbs and medicinal plants, flowers and other ornamentals, as well as hardwood and fruit trees. They inaugurated the project in 2010.
How have you integrated the garden into the school’s curriculum?
The teachers are already trying to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, and to integrate yet another subject into their day is difficult. So we developed a teacher’s guide, and we’re still working on implementing its use. The existing curriculum has an environmental component and a health component, and there are activities related to the garden that easily work into these studies. They’ve done the planting and now can watch the plants and learn about flowering and fruiting. They can study the nutritional value of the food crops in the garden and do simple things like measure the temperature difference between sunny areas and the shady ones underneath the trees.
My motto is “no child left indoors”. The data show that children who get outdoors are more creative, they‘re better writers, they’re better in math, they are more imaginative. I’m helping the teachers understand that getting kids involved in the garden will result in better test scores.
How have you funded the project?
It’s an initiative of the community, but we received a grant from the National Geographic Society which has helped with infrastructure, installing trails, a fence, outhouses and a gallery – meaning that they can be outside, even if it’s raining.
Why is it important to get kids involved?
The children are the hope to conserve the native resources and keep the Maya forest alive. Without the traditional knowledge and wisdom of the elders and their understanding of the flora and fauna of the Maya forest, the next generation will lose its connection to the land and thus the key to a sustainable model of living. It’s imperative that children acquire the knowledge of their elders and understand their connection to their Maya ancestors. The Känan K’aax offers a space and opportunity for this and the children are thrilled.
In 2007, you published a children’s colouring book about the Maya forest gardens, and now you’re supporting a model forest garden at a school. Why are you so passionate about helping new generations understand and appreciate the Maya forest gardens?
The Maya forest garden is a model of how humanity can sustain itself and flourish by cooperating with nature instead of altering, subduing and destroying it. My research shows the ancient Maya worked with their tropical environment, as opposed to simply exploiting it, in order to create a flourishing civilization sustained by its natural environment or ecosystem. Yet today the Maya forest garden is close to dying, just like languages that are dying because they’re not being passed on. Not enough people appreciate the value of the forest garden, which promotes conservation and biodiversity. As it’s threatened, so is the vitality of the Maya forest itself. The old forest gardeners are dying. Alcario Cano, for example, has died since we began the school garden. We’ve got to keep the forest garden alive. I’d love for it to be recognized by UNESCO as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage.