Ted, my husband, and I returned to Belize, Central America, this past summer after a 10-year child rearing hiatus.
In the mid 1990s, I followed Ted down to the Belizean jungles to study Ancient Maya agriculture. While Ted traipsed around in the jungle looking for and excavating agricultural terraces, I spent my days with our 6-month old son, Lucas, on my knee, analyzing the eroded ceramic artifacts and agricultural stone tools associated with the ancient terraces.
As a University of Pennsylvania graduate student, Ted investigated agricultural intensification through a study of agricultural terracing during the Classic period (A.D. 300-890) near the ancient Maya center, Xunantunich (pronounced Shoo-Nan-Tun-Eech), which is located in west central Belize.
Interestingly, population reconstructions suggest that this area supported more than 500 people/km2. I was interested in the everyday farming tasks and tools used by the ancient Maya. Given our research interests, a good friend and colleague, Dr. Sam Connell, asked us to return this past summer to help him run the Foothill Belize Program.
The Foothill Belize Program, sponsored by Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and the Belize Institute of Archaeology (www.nichbelize.org/ia-general/welcome-to-the-institute-of-archaeology.html), is an undergraduate program that "balances community development and ethnographic experiences with archaeology" (www.foothill.edu/anthropology/belize.php). For four weeks, students learn about the modern and past cultures of Belize through a variety of experiential learning activities.
Ted and I co-directed one of these programs called the Belize Farming: Past and Present Project. Working on an organic farm, we attempted to reconstruct the local food system at the Lodge at Chaa Creek in an effort to understand the past food system of the Maya.
Located just 3.82 miles northeast of Xunantunich, the 33-acre organic farm was conceived of by Mick and Lucy Fleming, who own The Lodge at Chaa Creek.
Chaa Creek is an eco-resort that consists of a 365-acre nature reserve that sits "along the banks of the Macal River in the foothills of the Maya Mountains and is home to a number of exotic jungle dwellers including peccaries, jaguar, monkeys and many others as well as more than 300 species of tropical and migratory birds" (www.chaacreek.com/belize-vacation/). The organic farm provides fresh food for the resort. Seven farmers combine traditional Maya hoe farming methods with a raised bed system to produce native and nonnative vegetables, ornamental plants, and fruit trees, which form a dynamic mosaic similar to the ancient Maya landscape of the past.
The Chaa Creek organic farm in many respects replicates conditions of agricultural intensification that we assume were present in the past when the Ancient Maya farmed the area. A definition of agricultural intensification is to increase inputs, which consist of things like money, labor, skill, and technology, into an area of land because land better suited for agriculture is unavailable and/or food demand has increased.
First, the resort owners have increased inputs on a small part of their property, simulating a land shortage. Second, some of the land on the farm is marginal in terms of agricultural suitability when compared to the surrounding area. Third, the resort restaurant creates a demand for organically grown produce. Fourth, the farmers are making an effort to farm traditionally, sustainably, and organically, which is what the Ancient Maya were "doing." Finally, we assume the farm, as an ecosystem, is similar Ancient Maya "farms." Consequently, it is an appropriate laboratory for studying agricultural intensification in this region.
Working with the Yucatec Maya farmers, Ted, Lucas, the students and I participated in all the tasks involved with the production of organic food. As anthropologists, we also recorded our activities every five minutes to determine how much human time and energy goes into the creation of an organic meal. In addition, we mapped all the cultural features on the farm and conducted informal interviews with the farmers to learn about field histories, composting strategies, vermiculture activities, soil taxonomies, planting strategies and the basic principles of organic farming.
Linda Neff, an archaeologist, is in the current Master Gardener class. She and her husband, Ted, will speak about organic farming in Belize at the Master Gardener Association meeting this coming Thursday, March 10, at 6:30 p.m. at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church. Dana Prom Smith is coordinating editor for the column. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the program, call Hattie Braun, coordinator of the Master Gardener program, at 774-1868, Ext.170, or visit the website highelevationgardening.arizona.edu.