Mayan Secrets for Today's Farmers?

The ancient Mayans were able to support a population of two million for more than 500 years in the Peten Region of Northern Guatemala, where today a growing population of 300,000 is destroying the forest resource base in order to survive. If the practice of clearing and burning the Peten to plant maize continues at it's current rate, this tropical ecosystem will be decimated in 25 years.

Many conservation and government groups are exploring ways to create protected areas. The Guatemalan government has recently created the 3.7 million acre Mayan Biosphere Reserve in the northern Peten. At the same time Centro Maya is taking the lead in the development of ecologically sound food production systems and other economic alternatives for use outside the protected zones.

Established in 1991, Centro Maya includes the Rodale Institute, the Tropical Agricultural Research and Training Center (CATIE), the University of San Carlos, and the Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology (ICTA).

The goal of Centro Maya is to increase food production in the Peten while preserving the tropical forest. The multidisciplinary team that comprises Centro Maya intends to accomplish their goal through these objectives:

  • Developing sustainable land use systems for farmers. Preliminary work will clarify contemporary farming practices, the problems farmers face, and the factors that influence their decisions. Centro Maya staff have already begun testing potential practices that include improved local corn varieties, intercropping green manures to control weeds and improve soil fertility. Legume screening trials are also underway. Future collaborative work will focus on ways to improve the harvesting of non timber forest products, such as chicle, xate, pepper, sabal and mimbre (rattan), to ensure that these products are harvested in a sustainable and economically viable manner.

  • Better understanding the ancient Mayan agricultural system, to adapt traditional techniques to modern conditions. Research tells us that the Mayans incorporated intensive home gardens, cover crops, and complex water management and agroforestry techniques in their production system. Working with archaeologists and anthropologists, these integrated systems will be reconstructed at a center for sustainable land use systems, allowing scientists to better understand them, and adapt them to modern production systems.

  • Promoting an ecotourism industry. The Peten has much to offer tourists including a wealth of exotic plant and animal life, ancient Mayan ruins, and the indigenous culture. Ecotourism would serve three purposes: educate the public about agriculture and land use issues, create a long term source of financial support, and redirect that support back into the local community.

    Initiated with support from U.S.A.I.D., Centro Maya has established a Guatemalan NGO to ensure the continuity of these activities. Rodale Institute staff are working to develop the NGO's capacity to promote Centro Maya and to obtain future funding.


    Jonathon Landeck
    Rodale Institute
    611 Siegfriedale Rd
    Kutztown, PA 19530

    Sergio Ruano
    Centro Maya/CATIE
    Cuidad de Flores
    Peten Guatemala
    Fax: 502-9-50039