An Innovative Model
for Promoting Environmental Diversity in the Maya Forest

Amigos de El Pilar
Bullet Tree Falls, Cayo

Road to Bullet Tree
Camino a Bullet Tree

Amigos de El PilarCommunity EcotoursBe Pukte Cultural CenterMaya Forest GardenHow to get here

The last terrestrial frontier is that of the tropics, yet we are not its first pioneers. Many tropical areas are relics of human habitats and nowhere is this signature more bold than that of the Maya forest. The integrated relationship between environment and culture that lasted more that four millennia is etched in ancient Maya settlement patterns and is well documented at El Pilar. These ancient patterns take on significant implications when we consider the future of this area and the people. Clearly the Maya forest provided rich, diverse resources that nurtured the Maya civilization and it should be able to do the same for contemporary villagers.

Based on the notion that replication of the natural environmental diversity in the cultural arena is the key to sustainability, the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna was founded to demonstrate how ancient traditions can provide contemporary solutions. Traditional resource management and conservation in the Maya forest supported the elaborate ancient civilization and provides a template for the demonstration Maya forest-garden that spotlights biodiversity as part of a sustainable polycultural model. No reserve exists within a vacuum and, in order to survive and thrive, the local population must assume a stewardship role. Towards this goal, strong collaborative ties are being forged between the El Pilar Program and the adjacent community, through Amigos de El Pilar, to develop innovative resource management strategies that revive the ancient Maya model.

The El Pilar Archaeological Reserve embraces about 800 hectares of Belizean forest and borders a contiguous extension in the Biosfera Maya of PetŽn, Guatemala. The ecological research at El Pilar is multi-disciplinary, addressing the interplay between the natural and cultural domains. Efforts are underway evaluating the flora and fauna of El Pilar as the foundation for land use models that represent an alliance with nature. An extended growth botanical study is monitoring a test plot of undisturbed forest to gain insight into local biodiversity. Agricultural studies are beginning with the help of local farmers. In all aspects of the research, the villagers are direct participants and stand as partners and beneficiaries of future developments.

The plans for El Pilar provide short-term benefits for the villagers as well as bring long-term solutions to the environmental and economic concerns of the area. Through an ecotourism approach, the Maya center of El Pilar will feature the daily life of the Maya and their methods of coexisting with the environment by developing the polycultural model. This model is based on an eclectic mix of crops that depend on available labor , rather than scarce capital. The scheme includes nitrogen fixing legumes such as acacia and beans, and phosphate generating palms such as the corozo or cohune, that together regenerate soils that are depleted by grains such as maize.

At El Pilar, the innovative polycultural design is based on a small-scale household plan and includes indigenous and introduced annuals and perennials interspersed with tree crops. By considering the appropriate combination of cultigens and native economic plants, the polycultural planting system will be a model that is adaptable to a variety of local conditions: forest cover, soil fertility, and proximity to population. As a demonstration of an effective strategy for survival, the Maya forest garden at El Pilar will be an ongoing source of innovation for the community, fostering resource conservation and community development that allies with the environment.

Biological corridors aimed at promoting biodiversity are only as effective as the intervening links. The forest garden design at El Pilar recognizes the contribution of traditional village communities towards strategic management of their own resources. Experiments within the reserve will document failures and underscore successes and, with community involvement, will provide a vehicle for transmitting the successes within the reserve to beyond its boundaries, converting extensive monoculture into biologically diverse polyculture. This will simultaneously promote biodiversity and demonstrate a sustainable mixed-management approach to the contemporary economic landscape of the Maya forest. As a model conservation program, El Pilar will be a monument to the past and convincing evidence for the future.

Website donated by