Master gardeners of the Maya Forest use the Indigenous scientific practices that they learn from their parents and grandparents — knowledge passed down the ancestral line for thousands of years.

One such wisdom-keeper is Master Forest Gardener Narciso Torres from Belize, who for decades has worked closely with Anabel Ford, director of the MesoAmerican Research Center at UC Santa Barbara.

“Economic botanists have noted that the Maya Forest is a garden with 20 dominant plants that are all useful for construction, for medicine, for fruit, for latex — essentially for everything, and Master Forest Gardener Narciso Torres knows more … he is a practitioner par excellence,” Ford said.

An anthropologist, Ford has observed Torres tend to the forest since the early 1980s, as she conducted research around the ancient Maya city of El Pilar.

Torres is a major contributor to Ford’s research on ancient Maya settlement patterns and land use, helping to map El Pilar and identifying the trees surrounding the mapped sites.

In recognition of his work and expertise, UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang on Jan. 13 presented Torres with a Chancellor’s Medal.

“It is an honor and pleasure to bestow the Chancellor’s Medal of the University of California, Santa Barbara, on Master Forest Gardener Narciso Torres,” said Yang. “For four decades, he has collaborated with Anabel Ford and the research team at El Pilar to help us understand the nature of ancient Maya settlement patterns and land use, the rich cultural and ecological heritage of the El Pilar site, and its lessons for sustainability and conservation today.”

“Over the years, we realized he was our teacher, and we were learning from him,” Ford said, noting that Torres sees the forest in a completely different way. He maps the landscape based on his knowledge of the plants, his understanding of habitats and his deep appreciation of plant-animal relationships.

She explained: “For Narciso, it is clear how to find water by the presence of an insect that I would not see; to recognize animals by the evidence of fruits, prints, odors and scat; or to hear the sounds of weather changes.

“His observation skills are subtle and his knowledge rivals that of ecologists. Every situation we encounter, he will assess it from a perspective that will seem novel to me but evident to him. He can return to an exact spot without a compass or GPS.

“He can tell how soon the rains will arrive. He can identify the ancient Maya presence without doubt, and he can interpret potentials of soil without a pH test.”

Along with some other master forest gardeners in El Pilar, Torres reads, discusses and vets Ford’s interpretations of the milpa forest garden cycle.

Because of their contributions, Ford said they are now in a better position to understand how food and shelter are cultivated, managed and nurtured in the Maya Forest landscape. 

Ford’s research and mapping of the environmental relationships of ancient settlements, including her work with collaborator Keith Clarke, professor emeritus of geography at UCSB, have shown that Maya house sites prefer well-drained upland contexts.

But it is the knowledge and wisdom of citizen scientists like Torres, she said, that provide the tangible and practical links to explain the patterns.

Continuing the traditions passed down from his ancestors, Torres gardens for sustainability and resilience: building fertility, reducing erosion, lowering temperatures, conserving water and increasing biodiversity.

Paying attention to how the ancient Maya invested in long-term cultivation over short-term extractions could help today’s scientists develop sustainable land use models, Ford said, noting that local and traditional farmers around the world represent a global fund of knowledge and practice critical to understanding our world.  

“The academy is opening its eyes and welcoming traditions born of the basic scientific method of trial and error, recognizing the wide range of contributions to the world of science,” Ford said.

“I am struck at the opportunity that Chancellor Yang is giving to a citizen scientist from the Maya Forest of Belize — and in doing so, highlighting the importance of different ways of knowing and seeing,” he said. “This inclusiveness defines Narciso Torres and connects to our vision of El Pilar as a peace park.”