Human civilization would not be where it stands today without the succession and subsistence of agriculture. Agriculture and farming are key components in establishment and growth of societies. The story of the Mayans is a perfect example of a culture built on certain agricultural forms and practices. Our current Western practices clearly contrast this. These modern and traditional societal differences and the intersections between nature and culture have been exemplified throughout our 3rd journey to Central America, through Guatemala and Belize.
In Guatemala we were able to get a sense of traditional Maya Mesoamerican culture when visiting the ancient ruins of Tikal, a complex system of temples and periods of which only 7% has been archaeologically uncovered. What has been discovered gives us a sense of how intelligent and technologically advanced they were for the time period of 200 BC to about 850 AD (Seidel, lecture). They implemented Swidden or slash and burn agriculture which involves cutting down forest at the end of the dry season and then burning the land before the rainy season for benefits such as returning nutrients to the soil. Unfortunately this method leaves fields fallow and out of production for several years. It also causes issues with environmental effects like erosion, runoff, and flooding from rain events on exposed soil. It is with these type of agricultural issues that the collapse of the Maya begins around 800 AD.
Much of the Mayans’ downfall was due to exponential population growth and stress and exploitation of resources, which sounds familiar to some problems in today’s society.
The population growth fueled more agriculture which further depleted the soil and lowered yields. Lack of food led to warfare which furthered decrease in farming cycles which led to even more war (Seidel). All of these limiting factors followed by a major drought led to the collapse of the civilization.
Although things didn’t turn out so great for the Maya many of their agricultural principles are beneficial. While in Guatemala we visited the farm of our guide Slyvano. His main crop was cacao, but he implemented a permaculture system in which he also grew many other plants and fruits. This garnered many culinary and medicinal uses, as well as added economic benefits. This form of multiple crop agriculture is greatly varied from the Western practice of monoculture.
Monoculture, or the practice of growing much of one crop, is widespread in American. Examples of this can be seen in corn and soy growIng operations. In many ways this system works for farmers, but there are risks associated environmentally and economically. It is hard to tell which form of agriculture is best to implement in a modern world. It is important to think globally beyond the individual and local scale, especially when adapting our land use to our cultural ways. Whether it be in the way of the Mayans or permaculture it is important and essential to recognize and be knowledgeable as humans maintaining a working relationship with the environment.