Revisiting the Milpa Cycle and the Myth of Mayan Collapse in Anabel Ford’s “The Maya Forest”

The Collapse of the Classic Maya, like the collapse of Rapa Nui’s society, has almost become a byword for environmental degradation. The theory, rapidly summarized, is that overpopulation produced over-exploitation of the local environment, ultimately leading the Maya to abandon their cities.

Professor Anabel Ford’s contribution to the recent book “The Maya World” (edited by Scott Hutson and Traci Ardren) contests narratives of the Classical Maya’s ecological ‘suicide.’ She advocates for a more nuanced understanding of the Mayan relationship with nature over the longue durée by focusing on the Milpa Cycle—the local agricultural practice of interspersing farmland and mature forests while periodically allowing farmland to regrow forest cover or converting forest space to cultivable fields. Ford contends the Milpa system’s field-forest-field cycle was, and is, a highly regenerative form of long term land-use, perfected over millennia of trial and error. The title, “The Maya Forest: A Domesticated Landscape,” directly alludes to this argument.

To demonstrate the capacity of indigenous knowledge to successfully manage the Central American landscape, Professor Ford draws upon ample archaeological and ethnographic evidence, interspersing analysis of modern Mayan farming with insights gathered from nearly a century of archaeological investigations. A highly developed lexicon for discussing natural resources, local biodiversity in long-exploited forests, the abundance of useful plant and animal life at the time of European contact: Ford deploys information gleaned from biology, ethnography, archaeology, and history to argue for the inherent dynamism and sustainability of the Milpa Cycle. Rather than exhausting their resources, the Maya maintained a high degree of biodiversity while also minimizing erosion and maximizing water retention by creating an ever-changing patchwork of forests and plots. In light of the evidence she provides, any reader is inclined to agree with Ford’s conclusion that introduced, European forms of agriculture pose a greater threat to the Maya than local farmers and indigenous practices.

In addition to demonstrating the biodiversity and utility of the Milpa Cycle, Ford asks how the cycle proved successful. Here, she contends readers must see the Milpa Cycle in three dimensions, as a horizontally and vertically diverse system. Mature forest canopies, transitional perennial shrubland, and low-lying, cleared fields represented horizontally interlocked spaces with great vertical variation. All three types of land were utilized for different purposes, and all were interdependent. Knowing this, Ford provides readers with a hypothetical model of land use and forest cover, demonstrating her hypothesis of interrelated, sustainable, cyclical land use.

All-in-all, Professor Ford’s “The Maya Forest” is an excellent summation of the evidence for a sustainable Milpa Cycle, and it challenges long-standing assumptions about ecological collapse. Most importantly for those interested in the history of forests, “The Maya Forest” conceives of a nuanced, sophisticated form of arboriculture which will inform research in the Yucatan region and beyond.

Read more: Ford, Anabel. 2020. “The Maya Forest: A Domesticated Landscape.” In The Maya World. Scott R. Hutson, Traci Ardren (eds). p519-539