The Forest of the Maya

Interview to Eugenio Ah on the meaning of forest according to him and the Maya Mopan nowadays

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Eugenio’s farm in southern Belize. Picture by Giacomo Pontara.
Belize, a small Country in Central America. Picture with CC licence.

“Forest”, one word but thousands of perceptions and meaning depending on the person who says such word, on the interests, the culture and the natural environment where she/he is living. Moving forward from simple language, this article explores a different way of thinking from the common Western one, when it is about considering forest. More precisely, the article reports the viewpoint of Eugenio Ah and the indigenous Maya Mopan people he belongs to in the south of Belize, a small country of Central America.

How is the forest in San Antonio, in Southern Belize?

Here there is a tropical rainforest with a variety of sub-ecosystems. We have a great intact forest cover in the Toledo district, where I live. However, monocrop agriculture is a key driver of forest loss: bulldozers take out trees destroying the soil and biodiversity. Other unsustainable practices are cattle ranching and wildfires. But nature can heal itself after destruction: animals themselves bring forest back by dispersing seeds, like bats do in my farm. This is something you can know if you live close to forest! 

So, biodiversity is quite a component: forest is not just about trees. What is the definition of forest according to you and to the people you belong to?

Forest is life and death. It is the cycle of life. Natural and human life. Forest gives the air we breathe and capture the CO2 we exhale. There is no life if we cut trees without responsible management, otherwise other services and benefits would miss.

Forest is a hardware store, where you can cut any material necessary to construct our traditional houses. Forest is like a temple, that creates our spirituality, due to the connection we have with it. As a Mopan Maya, forest is also a pharmacy because it gives medicines: you get the necessary herbs. One uses herbs from the forest to decrease or increase fertility, for example. Indeed, before the invention of modern hormone pills, Maya people already knew about that and this knowledge comes from our bush-doctors, or shaman. 

The forest surrounding and interaction with Eugenio’s farm. Picture by Giacomo Pontara.

The shaman can be a man or a woman. Here is what happens after birth in a Mopan Maya family. When a new child is born, for us it is very important that the mother rests for two weeks. We use coal from the forest wood to decrease her stomach pain in the first two days. Moreover, there is a type of palm (Dismoncos), with lots of spikes, that we cook as a soup for the new mother right after she gave the birth. Earthworms are roasted and given to her to induce the milk flow for the child. That is a strong connection from the forest: the beginning of life.

These are things that the outside world does not know. My generation knows most of these things, but now things are changing. Birth, life, spirituality and death are the values, connection with forest for me and for us, Mopans.

Eugenio, it really seems that forest is also energy. Can you tell us more about the energy you mean related to people and forest?

Forest is the energy we can feel. The bush-doctor regulates such energy and connection. Whenever a young person has interest to know this knowledge and to become a shaman, he has to pass through an initiation, which takes years of learning. He needs to prepare himself mentally, physically, spiritually and energy wise. 

Eugenio shows some fruits from his farm. Picture by Eugenio Ah.

At a certain age, the person got tested: he has to prove to be able to cure with energy by following a certain process. The young apprentice goes into the forest and looks for Sumaroba gumbo limbo, a particular tree species, and displays his energy to the tree; then he comes back to the village. Within 21 days after he comes back, the master starts monitoring the tree health. If the Sumaroba gumbo limbo tree withers, the apprentice shall come back to give energy back to the tree. Life. So, the new bush-doctor can bring and give energy to living beings, influencing their health and life. This life-giving energy is key for the benefit of the patient.

There are also many negative energies out there, so the master teaches to manage the negative and positive energies. Here, energy is received from tree and given back, again life and death. 

Eugenio shows some fruits from his farm. Picture by Giacomo Pontara.

It seems you deal with two generations and approaches. What is necessary for these two worlds to interact in a constructing dialogue? Are you positive when you consider the next generations?

Yes! We can close the gap in information. There is modern science and traditional-ecological knowledge: we need to embrace them both with balance, as we have a lot to learn from both. Mayas are being recognised for what they have contributed for the management of forests in the past. Nowadays leaders and decision-makers need to understand forest. Belize started to export wood, in particular mahogany trees and now bananas and cacao. So, such system that we have gotten from ‘developed countries’ put a lot of pressure on forests. I feel I can help the two worlds communicate with one another and demonstrate to younger generations that this is possible. It is an opportunity to rediscover our connection to forest and to mother earth, “na’luum’” in Mopan. 

Indigenous people consider themselves sons of the soil: we come from the soil and we have such strong connection, for example the traditional ecological knowledge. One needs that strong connection to read then traditional science. Now it’s rainy season for instance, and traditional-ecological knowledge tells us, which comes from forest: water plants start blooming, frogs and birds sing in different vocals. It is time for rain and season change, we understand such messages.

 We’d like to share this with young people like, my grandson Mauricio. I hope he will be able to continue the dream of living within the forest. 

Do you live in a forest? 

Yes, I live in a forest. I walk through the forest every day for a little more than one kilometre to go to work. There I feel like I am in the clouds unaware of my surroundings: there is a sense of peace which submerges you in the energy of the trees; a resting area before reaching my house when I come back from work. I can sense different kinds of songs, like birds, the stream, encountering some mammals on my path.

Eugenio, you mentioned the bygone days and that connection people had and have with forests. Does the woman play a particular role with forest?

Back to my grandparents’ time, I remember my grandma knowing several kinds of medicinal plants.

Breadfruit tree growing on Eugenio’s farm. When roasted, the fruits taste like bread. Picture by G. Pontara.

My grandfather used to plant corn for food. The moment before planting, my grandmother used to prepare incense that my grandfather would have burnt while saying some words as chants for planting. Women prepare for planting ceremony. The women did have other specific role: they were also expert in collecting food like freshwater snails. Women shared their roles with men: they could go for firewood or plant trees. However, this modern society is changing habits for young women, who often get into careers. I hope there will be awareness to connect back to mother earth. There is a need for balance between modern life and traditional life. Especially the food we eat comes from the earth.                     

Finally, the Covid-19 has pushed many people to come back to land simply to produce food and are closer to forest. It is up to our leaders to embrace such opportunity, especially for women. 

Any final remarks? 

We face a dilemma: forest degradation has and will continue to have sever impacts and climate change is the evidence. I hope my people and the Belizean government will embrace the idea to plant trees for a stronger resilience. 

We have a saying: “A man who plants trees and knows that he is not going to sit under the shade of those trees, understands life”. This man will leave a better place for his grandchildren.

That is why I plant trees every day, in my farm: I want to capture water in soil and increase forest cover. I plant trees, to help forest to come back and to overlap with agriculture to create in synergy, like agroforestry and the broader practice of agroecology. 

There is still a lot to be done but there are other people like me, with strong connection. We are doing our part. We hope it is a lesson that other people can also learn…you just need to start planting!

Now is the time to green the landscape. Let’s save the human species.

“There is a sense of peace, a resting area before reaching my house when I come back from work”; Eugenio walking 
through the forest. Picture by Giacomo Pontara.
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