mayans, mayan culture, ancient mayans, conservation
forest conservation

Mayan Culture Offers Valuable Clues on Forest Conservation

November 05, 2009 12:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Studies show a connection between ancient Mayans' forest conservation techniques and cultural survival, offering invaluable insight for modern foresters and conservationists.

Unlocking Mayan Secrets

According to ScienceDaily, a study by paleoethnobotanist David Lentz of the University of Cincinnati revealed that Mayan people not only practiced forest management techniques, but when such practices were abandoned, "it was to the detriment of the entire Maya culture." The Mayans of Guatemala displayed "deliberate conservation practices" that can be seen in "the wood they used for construction," Lentz said.

The Mayans seemed to know something that modern society often loses sight of: the many benefits of forests. "The Maya forests provided timber, fuel, food, fiber and medicine in addition to the ecosystem services of cleansing the air and water," Lentz explained. He and his team have more questions to answer—for example, how did Mayans conserve water? They'll return to Tikal, Guatemala, in February 2010 to attempt to find answers, and potentially derive additional lessons that are applicable to modern life.

According to the site of a PBS NOVA program on the Maya, "the city of Tikal was a bustling metropolis and center of culture that lasted for 1,000 years, while Europe was still in the Dark Ages." Could forest conservation have been the key to the civilization's success? It seems so, according to NOVA's conclusion "that Mayans may have been partly responsible for their own collapse by destroying their environment and contributing to a significant drought."

Opinion & Analysis: Development and conservation

Some leaders, such as Brazil's Roberto Mangabeira Unger, insist that development is a necessary part of conservation, even in protected areas comparable to the Mayan "sacred groves."

In May 2008, Brazil unveiled plans to build dams and a highway in the Amazon region, which was expected to cost nearly $300 billion over two years. The project, called Plan for a Sustainable Amazon, includes the controversial Belo Monte dam, which could produce a significant portion of Brazil's electricity by 2014, but would also damage the rainforest and destroy livelihoods. Unger's ideas have clashed with those of staunch conservationist Marina Silva, who quit her post as environment minister of Brazil after growing frustrated with what she deemed the Brazilian administration's anti-environmentalism.

In June, a study by a group of international scientists of "the life expectancy, literacy and income of people living in 286 areas around the Brazilian Amazon" revealed that quality of life got an immediate boost when a forest was cleared. But according to The Guardian's Alok Jha, that quickly changed; average monthly income and literacy rates spiked and then dropped almost back to normal.

Related Topics: Forest conservation in Oregon; Disney's conservation Efforts

In July, Oregonians celebrated the Obama administration's cancellation of the Bush-era Western Oregon Plan Revision, which "would have nearly quadrupled current logging on public lands in western Oregon," the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center reported. A lawsuit was filed by 13 "conservation and fisheries protection organizations" challenging the legislation, and ultimately helped convince the Obama administration that "the Bush plan illegally ignored requirements to protect endangered species." Scientific research concluded that the plan would have been detrimental to forest water and wildlife, and would have added to global warming.

In response, Bob Freimark of The Wilderness Society said, "[I]t is encouraging to see that the Obama Administration recognizes the amazing values our ancient forests provide other than timber extraction," according to the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

The Walt Disney Corporation has also stepped up efforts to contribute to forest conservaiton.

In early November, the Disney announced it had committed $7 million to a slew of forest conservation projects "in the Amazon, Congo and United States." The move coincided with increased pressure on U.S. lawmakers "to cut green house gas emissions" before the Copenhagen global warming summit in December, reported Gina Keating of Reuters.

Disney's projects include conservation in the eastern Congo's Tayna and Kisimba-Ikobo Community Reserves, and will benefit Peru's Alta Mayo conservation project. In addition, funds will go to reforestation and forest management projects in the Lower Mississippi Delta and North Carolina, according to Keating. Disney's partners for the forest conservation initiative include the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund and Conservation International.

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