Two Book Reviews: "The Maya Forest Garden" and "Wild Product Governance"

Two Book Reviews by Michael Pilarski
October 22, 2015

1) The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands. Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh. 2015. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California. 259 pages.


2) Wild Product Governance: Finding Policies that Work for Non-Timber Forest Products. Edited by Sarah A. Laird, Rebecca J. McLain and Rachel P. Wynberg. 2010. Earthscan, London. 393 pages.

1) The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands. Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh. 2015. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California. 259 pages.
An excellent contribution to the world literature on sustainable, indigenous land management.  After rigorous paleo-botanical, archaeological and ecological research and on the ground consultation with existing practitioners, the authors conclude that the widely assumed cause of the collapse of the Mayan civilization due to deforestation and environmental degradation is not true. The forest gardens developed by the Mayans were sustainable. Their traditional milpa system involved many stages of plant cover, most of the time in forest phases. This resulted in a landscape mosaic of various ages of forest interspersed with smaller areas of corn after slashing and burning forest.  Each corn milpa plot was in corn production for 4 years or so and even during the corn phase the Mayans were planting trees or allowing natural regeneration of desired species in the corn fields.  After corn there were stages of perennial crops, berries and tree crops.  At all stages the plot is tended and harvested. European immigrants only saw the corn as agriculture and didn’t recognize the other phases of production.  As a result of this millennia of forest gardens much of the forests in the Mayan areas are anthropogenic and contain a high % of trees and plants useful to humans such as the breadnut tree/ramon (Brosimum alicastrum)
Forest gardens are all the rage in permaculture circles these days and they have gotten a lot of press, but we are largely a bunch of newbies.  Study of traditional forest gardens such as the Mayan milpa system have a lot to offer modern practitioners. The authors give a list of the most used plant species in the Maya forest gardens, but do not describe layout or species interactions in detail. Further research would be invaluable to forest gardeners in other parts of the world, particularly the subtropics (such as Hawai`i).
The traditional milpa corn/forest fallow rotations are one example of what is often called slash and burn farming.  The better technical term is “swidden” agriculture. Although swidden farmers have been largely decried in recent decades as despoilers of the environment, this can be a very effective and sustainable way to obtain food and sustain societies in the challenging environments of the subtropical and tropical forests.  Modern industrial agriculture there have been ecological failures in very short order.  The Mayan forest gardens are just one example of many tried and true indigenous forest garden strategies around the world.  A comprehensive study is in order to locate and describe the best extant and extinct examples.
For those who are familiar with Terra Preta or biochar it is notable that the Mayan burning for milpas was done in such a way as to create a lot of charred material which gets incorporated into the soils during the rotations.  This is excellent for long-term carbon sequestration.
The authors make a distinction between the traditional milpa systems and the often degraded systems of milpa used today.
The authors make a statement at the end of the book  (page 166) about the “war on subsistence economy” which really rung a bell for me.  What they are referring to is the war on subsistence farmers which the empire has waged around the world over the past centuries of colonialism.  Every year there are less subsistence farmers. Every year the % of the world’s population who are indigenous people or traditional agriculturists lessens.  The noose tightens.  We not only need to learn from the remaining traditional sustainable systems, we need to support the people who are keeping them alive.  And we need to create new sustainable systems where we live, informed by the best traditional systems. I’d recommend Ford and Nigh’s book to anyone interested in permaculture and forest gardens.
A few quotes:
“In its high-performance mode, the Maya milpa is a form of restoration agriculture as defined by Shepard [Restoration Agriculture]. Each cycle of production results in abundant products for family subsistence, trade and tribute. The system also prevents erosion and compaction, increases soil fertility, and builds long-term carbon reserves in the soil and in enriched woodland vegetation.  A dialogue of scientific and traditional farmer knowledge is desperately needed to construct productive conservation landscapes for the future of the tropics worldwide.”
“The current universal faith in the efficiency and low cost of the industrial food systems appears, in the light of recent research, to be misplaced. The perceived benefits of modern technology in agriculture and food production are deceptive and fraught with a number of bio-physical contradictions that bring their sustainability into question.  Upon careful reflection, these contradictions lead us to propose the strategies of the milpa technology as reliable solutions for feeding the growing twenty-first century world population.”
“…we find that the milpa is neither primitive nor unproductive and is positive for human health and the environment. Food produced by the milpa is of high quality, as it is based on the natural fertility maintained by the forest garden cycle, where regenerated woodlands continually restore minerals and organic matter. High biodiversity assures that pesticides are unnecessary and all wastes are recycled in the field. Water is managed by the conservation of vegetation and by the infiltration of rainwater stored in the soil. A healthy and natural relationship is fostered for animals that are attracted to the secondary vegetation of the milpa forest garden, resulting in a kind of semi-domestication based on the landscape. Dependence on fossil fuel is nonexistent, and, far from contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, the Maya milpa creates a long-term store of carbon in the soil.”
2) Wild Product Governance: Finding Policies that Work for Non-Timber Forest Products. Edited by Sarah A. Laird, Rebecca J. McLain and Rachel P. Wynberg. 2010. Earthscan, London. 393 pages.
Non Timber Forest Products or NTFPs is a commonly used term for products wildcrafted from the wild for food, medicine, crafts and industrial uses. As a professional wildcrafter of medicinal herbs in the United States and an expert on sustainable wildcrafting this book was fascinating reading for me.  It details the current status of wildcrafting in many countries around the world and the government policies their wildcrafters have to contend with. Countries discussed include Bolivia, Brazil, Cameroon, India, British Columbia, [Canada], Scotland, Finland, Sweden, Karalia, [Russia], the Philippines, South Africa, Mexico, Fiji, Yunnan [China], and floral greens in the US Pacific Northwest.
NTFP gatherers (aka wildcrafters) around the world are largely rural people at the low end of the economic spectrum.  Many of them are indigenous people.  Reading this book gives a heartache for the world’s indigenous peoples.  It is obvious from many of the country examples that indigenous people are among the most exploited parts of society. Generally they receive a pittance for the hard work they do gathering the brazil nuts, yohimbe bark, acai berries, etc that find their way into international, national and local commerce. Most of the money goes to middlemen, exporters, corrupt officials and retailers.  A small fraction of the end value goes to the gatherer/producer.  Fair trade certification can help the gatherer obtain a more fair share as outlined in Bolivia’s brazil nut industry.
The worst corruption example was from Cameroon, Africa.  Transporters of NTFPs there have to go through many police or government checkpoints to get to their destination.  At every checkpoint they have to pay bribes to police or government officials or have their loads confiscated.
Tribal peoples in India and the Philippines have to contend with government regulations that make it illegal to harvest NTFPs on their traditional lands. In some countries the state claims ownership over all forests and even trees on private land.  On the other hand, Brazil is much more progressive and allows subsistence gathering of NTFPs for household use.
Finland and Sweden have an official policy of “Everyman’s Right” which means that people can harvest berries and mushrooms on private and public lands.  The “commons’ are still open. In some cases, only locals can harvest.
In some parts of the world (especially Africa) local traditions and laws regulate NTFP gathering much more than government laws.  The degree of sustainable wildcrafting varies widely depending on country (and even region).
This book was designed to educate policy makers around the world on this topic.  It is obvious from the articles that most governments don’t have a clue.  Still, there is progress and this book helps illuminate the current situation. Great reading if you are interested in the international wildcrafting situation.

MICHAEL “SKEETER” PILARSKI is a life-long student of plants and earth repair. His farming career started in 2nd grade and his organic farming career began in 1972 at age 25. Michael founded Friends of the Trees Society in 1978 and took his first permaculture design course in 1982. Since 1988 he has taught 36 permaculture design courses in the US and abroad. His specialties include earth repair, agriculture, seed collecting, nursery sales, tree planting, fruit picking, permaculture, agroforestry, forestry, ethnobotany, medicinal herb growing, hoeing and wildcrafting. He has hands-on experience with over 1000 species of plants. He is a prolific gathering organizer and likes group singing.