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Saturday, December 15 , 2018, 9:31 am | Fair 53º


Anabel Ford: Chaco’s Forest Garden a Maya Treasure

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We went to meet Zacarias Quixchan, a consummate master Maya forest gardener whose great great great great ... grandparents greeted Hernán Cortés on his first trek across the Maya forest in 1524. The forest gardens of Zacarias, or Chaco, are north of his village of San Andres on Lake Petén Itza. I first visited Chaco with a group of Maya forest gardeners from Cayo Belize some 15 years ago.

Chaco is a proud agriculturalist. He has worked with his land and knows it well. He understands where the water goes, and uses it wisely — never leaving areas uncovered by trees and bushes for long. He studies his land, clearing and starting fires with wisdom and care. He is seriously devoted to the maintenance of his property and wants it to yield for his lifetime and those of his children and their children. One of his son’s is following in his footsteps and the forest gardens are flourishing.

Zacarias 'Chaco' Quixchan relies on his skills and techniques like cutting and fire to help his crops grow in the Maya forest. (Anabel Ford photo)
Zacarias “Chaco” Quixchan relies on his skills and techniques like cutting and fire to help his crops grow in the Maya forest. (Anabel Ford photo)

Sadly, Chaco says there is a great misunderstanding of the traditional methods of cutting and burning that denigrates his time-honored skills. He eschews the references to the milpero, saying it is deprecatingly equated with negatives of indiscriminate clearing without care for the landscape. I see this as the puzzling use of slash-and-burn that sounds like rape and pillage.

Chaco’s strategies, like those of other traditional Maya, are far from that. He uses his skills and techniques of cutting and fire as a way to select and grow. Yet, while I think of milpero as a traditional farmer, he argues that he sees it used to refer to the convention of small farmers with no investment in the fields, those without ownership of the land, who slash, burn, plant maize, and then move on. If you do not invest in the landscape, structure the reforestation, and build toward the future food forests, Chaco asserts that you will lose the important values of the fertile lands of the Maya forest.

On our first tour of this remarkable forest garden, Chaco shows us his well-drained multicrop maize fields, his use of swampy areas for moxan, the traditional Maya leaf used for tamales, his mahogany spacing to avert the depredations of moths, and his prized allspice forest. He always discusses the challenges of working with rainfall, leaving plants for the birds, planting more maize for the deer with the other farmers in his midst. He shared his ideas about nurseries, the potentials of fast-growing ceibo for plywood, and his long-term assets in hardwoods that should take him through his retirement. But his love and his greatest personal interests are in allspice trees, and he has several plots that are dominated with this lucrative spice that produces in August.

Chaco has crafted his skills in accord with the needs of his family as well as the cultivated landscape he relies on, creating with nature a constant source of food, spice and materials he uses and sells. Every year he makes spaces for his maize fields filled with chiles, tomatoes, beans, squash and varieties of root crops, as well as many other annuals and sprouting perennials. Lately he has planted some flowers, a new arena of commerce.

He reminds us that his staged fields include many young fruits and hardwoods he has selected, planted and nurtured. His reforested plots are staggered around with increasingly larger and taller fruit and varied hardwoods trees, mature allspice forest and food forests reaping good capital when harvested. He has tall woodlands that will soon yield lumber.

Every visit, there is change: maize fields give way to papaya, plantains, bananas; those fast-growing perennials shift to broad-leafed fruit trees, different citrus with mahogany, cedar, avocado and ramon reaching to the sky. These nurtured forests follow the decades of his work. Like all forest gardeners, Chaco also maintains a “reserve” that makes up at least half his lands. These reserves have old-growth hardwoods saved for seed; a full under story of palms for their many uses of thatching, brooms, fruits, oil, baskets; and areas of brambles and vines that are the life blood of traditional house structure. These important vines, crucial in the binding and holding of structural members and the roof, only grow in the shade of the forest canopy.

On this cool February morning, we arrive to a refreshing snack that would have been a meal by any other name. Hard thin tortillas spread with blended spicy black beans and maize atole nourish our morning. After that welcome, we took our first walk out to his old maize milpas he first slashed and burned 2008. This area is teaming with fruits but spaced to still include annuals. We see chiles, beans, manioc, squash and pineapples growing along with the plantains citrus sprouts, and new mahogany plants.

Chaco points out the hardwoods and fruits he is sprouting and the perimeter trees he calls achotillo that grow stalk straight for use as timber. As we move around, he tells us of the differing soil qualities of his plots and his discovery of their advantages and disadvantages based on his intimate fieldwork. In such a small area he asserts that there are significant differences, which affects his crop choice as well as his results. One portion of the field he has left to nature and many trumpet trees, Cecropia, can be seen improving the soil and attracting birds. In another he has established new kinds of flowers that he says fetch good money at the market. He is constantly experimenting.

Our walks around the forest gardens are as invigorating as they are instructive. We enjoy Chaco’s sense of humor and his ability to teach, listen and answer questions. Our visit culminates with a delicious, beautiful and colorful lunch filled literally with the fruits of his farm. Chaco has a right to be proud! 

Click here for a description of the milpa-forest garden cycle.

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.

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