In the days of the Maya, the jungle forests of Belize and Guatemala were more densely populated than they are today. But somehow, this ancient race was able to sustain itself in a way that present populations can not.
To facilitate sustainable development in these verdant, vine-choked lands, an education project began, based around El Pilarâ€”a major Mayan city in the Central Mayan Lowlands. On this section of land straddling Belize and Guatemala, academics and locals toiled side by side to create the Mayan Forest Gardens. A cousin of the precedent-setting Forest Garden Program (developed by Earth Voice and Counterpart International), this project facilitates sustainable development of agricultural and forest lands in traditional Mayan communities.
One such forest garden is owned by Don Berto Cocom in Bullet Tree Falls, Belize. Endearingly referred to as â€śThe Old Manâ€ť by locals, Don Berto once cleared his land of native vegetation and planted palm trees in its place. He soon found himself begging his neighbors for the native plants that he depended on, both for food and medicine.
Then, 35 years ago, Don Berto replanted half his land with native plants. Like the ancient forest gardens of the Maya, his network of vegetation is designed around an open canopy that allows light to filter through to the plants and trees below.
Today, Don Bertoâ€™s Masewal Forest Garden and Medicine Trail is open to the public. The Old Man himself leads visitors along a trail that winds through thick secondary forests and open vistas, stopping at almost every plant to explain its ancient and current medicinal uses. The loop trail passes through an old Mayan quarry and several unexcavated Mayan mounds. Don Berto has found many arrowheads on his property which he has collected and displayed under the thatched roof of his chair-making workshop.
As it is with forests in Central America, there are many, many mosquitoes. Fortunately, the leaves of a particular tree can be squished up and rubbed on a bite to relieve the itching. Perhaps as a joke to himself, Don Berto keeps the identity of this tree a secret until the end of the hour long walk.
A testament to progress in the name of sustainable development, Don Berto finds more use for his forest garden than he did for the palm tree plantation. To spread the word and sow these precious seeds of knowledge elsewhere, he teaches local school children, so that they too can remember the ways of their ancestors.
With people like Don Berto and projects like the Mayan Forest Gardens, maybe one day the area will sustainably support a large population as it did during ancient Mayan times.