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Each May, Belize celebrates Education Week. In the spirit of this national event, the Santa Barbara-based nonprofit, Exploring Solutions Past, has participated by coordinating tours of El Pilar Archaeological Reserve, giving presentations at local schools and leading hands-on garden activities in the villages.
This year, Exploring Solutions Past focused on increasing the integration of the model school garden, Känan K’aax (well-tended forest in Mayan) into the week’s events. We created a daylong event with guided garden tours near Santa Familia Village, Cayo Belize.
We had an excellent team supporting this event: environmentalist Peter Manzanero, biologist Grecia Mendez and archaeologist Tina Roan assisted with event coordination and teaching. Community specialist Cynthia Ellis and Master Forest Gardeners Narciso Torres and Alfonso Tzul were essential to the success of the day, making the magic of the forest garden come alive for each student.
As each class arrived, students were given information packets with a site map and a plant bingo game sheet. Tzul welcomed each class in his magnificent Mayan, while Torres translated his oration phrase by phrase, demonstrating the importance of the Mayan language in the garden.
Next, Mendez talked about the metric system and how to determine the height and diameter of a tree. She explained to the students that they did not need to have anything fancy to measure the size and breadth of the plants, demonstrating how they can use their own size as a unit of measurement. The kids had a great time with this concept, estimating how many times taller and wider a tree they were in comparison.
After this introduction, Tzul and Torres separated the class into two groups, naming them Cacao and T’isil — chocolate and vanilla in Mayan. Each took one group of the class to see specific native plants of the Maya garden. They first went to the see the corozo palm, then the achiote bush and, finally, the chaya plant.
We all found the children receptive and informed. They knew corozo nuts produced oil, that achiote seeds were a food coloring, and that chaya leaves were an important vegetable. As they left, each child selected a small chaya cutting to plant in their yard and received a poster of Tzunu’un of El Pilar Archaeological Reserve.
The tours and activities kept us on our feet all day, and we were grateful for the few moments of rest between classes. At these times, Tzul regaled us with stories and reflections, all from his vast and remarkable experience.
A truly exhilarating and busy day, the Känan K’aax garden event was a great success. The biggest reward was to see the enthusiasm of the children as they grappled with new ideas, worked with the plants, and showed genuine interest in learning more about the garden. We look forward to Belize’s National Education Week next year and the opportunity to spark more student interest and delight in garden education.
— Anabel Ford Ph.D. is the director of UC Santa Barbara’s MesoAmerican Research Center and president of Exploring Solutions Past. Ford, UCSB’s resident expert on Maya archaeology, discovered the ancient Maya city-center El Pilar, which bridges Belize and Guatemala. By decoding the ancient landscape around El Pilar, she is creating a sustainable model in conservation and agriculture that can regenerate the threatened Maya forest. With investment and support, her model can assist environmental efforts worldwide. Click here for more information on El Pilar. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.