Lacandon maya ecosystem management: sustainable design for subsistence and environmental restoration

Diemont, SA and JF Martin. 2009. Ecological Applications 19(1): 254-266.

The MesoAmerican Biological Corridor was originally proposed as a means to protect biodiversity and endangered species in Central America. While it includes many reserves, it also encompasses private and community lands managed in both traditional and non-traditional ways. This paper studied the agricultural practices of the Lacandon Maya to discern whether their techniques contribute to broader regional conservation efforts. The Lacandon practice swidden (successional slash-and-burn) agriculture comprised of 6 stages over an approximately 25 year period that range from milpa (beans and corn) to secondary forest. They grow numerous species during each phase (over 400 total recorded), many of which are specifically included due to properties that influence nutrient retention in the soil over time. The authors found that species richness is lowest in the first phase, but remains relatively constant thereafter. Soil organic matter and nitrogen increase over time, while phosphorous spikes during the second fallow shrub phase. While not recorded in this study, previous work indicates that the phases provide forest species with habitat and resources as the system matures.
Deforestation and subsequent soil erosion are major problems in the tropics, however Lacandon agriculture builds soil while supporting biological diversity, providing subsistence food, and maintaining cultural traditions. The use of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) to enhance land management practices in the human-dominated matrix between reserves could enhance connectivity and thus strengthen conservation efforts. While the authors propose this as a solution, in the introduction they alluded to numerous social, economic and political constraints that may inhibit adoption of such techniques. They do not address how other traditional agricultural or land-use practices could link together across cultures, nor identify whether participation in such projects is attractive to the Lacandon. Finally, it is unclear if the authors propose that existing swidden lands be protected, or whether they advocate using these techniques in already degraded areas, or both. Are these techniques proven to restore degraded lands? Would such lands be opened up to traditional farmers if this strategy were taken up? While an interesting paper, it leaves many questions hanging- neither addressed nor answered.

Photo: Bean field with coffee farm in background, Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Hillary SardiƱas

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