Towards the end of our two-week Permaculture Design Course at Maya Mountain — their 11th as a host and our personal 50th as a teacher — we sallied out into the Maya world with Chris Nesbitt in search of a turkey for the graduation feast.
This took us to the home of James, a graduate of one of our earlier courses, who lives with his growing family in the village of San Marcos, in the Toledo District of Belize. From the last census we could find, the population of the village was 328, 99% Ke’kchi, 1% Mopan.
The Maya built their great culture on towns, regions and bioregional states. Most of these, particularly the smaller villages, survived the collapse of the Classic Era, the Spanish Conquest, and the Colonial Period. Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo in Mexico, most of Guatemala, more than half of Belize and the Western reaches of Honduras and El Salvador have similar political and cultural traditions that are now some 2500 years old and show no signs of going away. They are sustained by places as much as the memory of peoples.
Mayan cultural literacy is less about writing, music or the Bible and more about knowing plants and animals. Not just naming them. Knowing them.
Bird song, jaguar and howler growl, locations of raw materials, flows of streams, trail networks and portage routes are things that children learn early and do not soon forget.
Toxic wastes, plastics, logging, consumer society, fracking and GMOs are recent arrivals, and threaten everyone, but they are pretty puny in comparison to the depth of culture that opposes them. Human fecundity grounded in religious dogma is the greater threat.
In a classroom session pointedly aimed at those in the workshop that were Mayan, Garifuna or otherwise native Belizian, Chris outlined the hard numbers on the chalkboard. In 1985 the population of Belize was 150,000 and an equal number lived just across the border, in the highland Petén of Guatemala. Guatemala as a whole was 6 million then.
In 2015, Belize had grown to 347,369 — more than double in 29 years, but still the lowest population density in Central America. Petén was 2 million (a 13-fold increase) and Guatemala 14 million. “Before you reach carrying capacity you start to make bad, short-term, expedient decisions,” Chris told the class. He spoke of people in Haiti baking cakes of clay and lard and selling them in the market, of the Balkanization of Eastern Europe, of Rwanda, of Syria and the European refugee crisis.
Native Toledians still speak of the forced Christianization of the region that happened to Punta Gorda Town with the arrival of the missionaries 500 years ago. Many who refused to be Christianized took refuge in the Maya Mountains. The Mopan call these people the Che’il and the Ke’kchi call them Chol. In the past they were objects of scorn, uneducated and primitive. Today they are venerated, except in the most westernized parts of the country.
In Mayan villages incense is burned and prayers are said to these “wild Maya” who protect the animals and forests. Hunters and chicle workers take them salt from the coast as offerings.
In 1850, concerned about the flow of people across the mountains, British Honduras closed its Western Border, although it was not until 1934 that that border was even surveyed, never mind guarded. These days, the tensions along the border are growing as Belize begins to fret about the increase in immigration and Guatemala once more rattles its sabre, reasserting its legal claim to, if not the whole of Belize, then merely from the Sibun River south. This claim amounts to roughly 53% of the country and includes significant portions of Cayo, Belize District, Stann Creek and Toledo. Emigration serves Guatemala’s purposes here.
When we first started going there, the trek down to Punta Gorda was an 8-hour ordeal over bad roads, sometimes impassible in the rainy season when we would resort to the coastal boat route. Then came the Hummingbird Highway with its regular flow of scheduled services in recycled Bluebird school buses, shortening the distance from Belize City on the Northern coast.
A few years ago, Belize finally made good a 150-year-old promise and started cutting a road to Guatemala through the mountains. Under the terms of the Wyke–Aycinena Treaty of 1859, Great Britain — whose unintended and ungovernable “colony" composed of shipwrecked Anglos, Scots and later Baymen immigrants and Garifuna had, on its own, fought off Spanish territorial claims in 1798 at the Battle of St. George's Caye — promised to build that road from Punta Gorda in exchange for Guatemala agreeing to give up land claims inherited from Spain's Vatican-sanctioned Treaty of Tordesillas with Portugal in 1494.
Now the road is finally going in, two centuries later, and Guatemala is saying, thanks very much, but too late. You blew it. Without that road being built by British Baymen in 1859, we are no longer bound to give up King Ferdinand’s claim to the New World. Guatemala also points to the 1783 Treaty of Versailles, wherein Britain agreed to abandon British forts in Belize that protected the Baymen and give Spain sovereignty over the soil, which made it part of Guatemala (conveniently forgetting the embarrassing loss to the uppity Baymen at St. George's Caye in 1798).
Guatemala's new president, Jimmy Morales, when campaigning in 2015, said "Something is happening right now, we are about to lose Belize. We have not lost it yet.” Perhaps he was referring to the road as the thing that was happening. If he thinks he will get the Belizeans to walk away from their country, after only just gaining independence from Britain in 1981, he is wrong about having not already lost it.
Between 1975 and 1979, Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Panama changed their stances from supporting Guatemala to supporting Belize. The OAS, trying to defuse the conflict, established a border zone extending one kilometer (0.62 mi) on either side of the 1859 treaty line. Guatemala has taken the matter to the International Court of Justice. Both sides have strengthened military presence at the border, as road-building continues.
A little way past the junction with the Hummingbird Highway, where the new road turns towards Guatemala is the turnoff to the town of San Marcos.
San Marcos is a long, narrow village bisected by a ridge road running up its middle, then dog-legging left. The houses look much the same as in other Mayan villages of the region — stick walls, thatch roofs, hand pump in the front yard. In 1975, three families came here to found the village, led by brothers Santos and Luciano Muku and Camilo Rash. Before that the families had lived on private property in the dump area outside Punta Gorda Town. New settlers came to join them, mostly Kek’chi from Guatemala fleeing the genocidal holocaust of the late 70s and 80s. In 1981 they built a church and school and named their village San Marcos.
St. Mark, it is worth recalling, was born of Jewish parents around 3 AD in the city of Cyrene in Pentapolis, now Libya. Shortly after his birth, his family migrated to Palestine to escape Berber attacks. A few years later when his father Aristopolos died, Mark was taken in by Peter Simon who would later become an apostle. Mark studied law and the classics and later authored the earliest known gospel. He was martyred in 68 AD by being tied to a horse’s tail and dragged through the streets of Alexandria for two days. We mention this not for the shock value but to point to similarities between the mass migrations now underway in the Southern Mediterranean and 2000 years ago, and also to the similarities of the atrocities perpetrated on the Maya in Guatemala by Reaganista Evangelical Christian governments in the early 80s.
In San Marcos about a third of the population today are Catholic and the remainder either Evangelical Christian or Mennonite. Apart from a small sliver of the Mopan Maya, the first language of the village is Ke’kchical with both Spanish and English learned at home or in school by age 10.
A 1995 survey of occupations in the village shows that 18% farm produce, 46% raise animals, 10% hunt and the remainder fish, although we suspect that most do all of those and the survey form was simply passed around the house for everyone to put down their favorite.
More revealing is the age demographic. Only 7% are over 50. Nine percent are 35-49. Those age 34 or less make up 84% of the population and 64% are under 17, reaching fertility in the next decade. Principally because of total agreement between Catholic, Evangelical and Mennonite doctrines on this point, nearly all families will resemble James’ family — six to twelve children per mother, with the next generation coming as soon as biologically possible. Besides the refugee influx, this philosophical tradition is also what Guatemala brings into Belize, which is now Latin America’s fast growing country.
Guatemala is already outstripping its abilities to provide for its own. Whole forests have fallen to the axe in the Petén. Refugees come through the mountains and trickle into Maya settlements all over Toledo. The village closest to Chris’s farm, San Pedro Columbia, has quadrupled in size in the years we have been coming here.
If you look at any given home it seems idyllic. Food trees — banana, papaya, mango, sapote, are never far from the front door. Chickens, ducks, turkeys and pigs free range in the yards. James’ family has a small corn mill in a front room so they make masa for the village— nixtamalized dough for tortillas and empanadas — on demand. When Chris asks for 4 kg, a daughter goes to a wet barrel and ladles out soaking, reddish dent kernels into a sieve, takes them to the pump to wash, and delivers them to her mother in the mill room.
The rehydrated field corn she had ladled had been parboiled in slaked lime (Calcium Hydroxide)— 1 Tbsp per kg. CaO + H2O -> Ca(OH)2. Some poor villages that cannot afford or find lime (Mexican Cal) use wood ash to extract potash. They leach the ashes in a large pot, strain and evaporate the liquid to produce Potassium carbonate (K)2(CO3), which is alkaline and can be used as a substitute for Calcium hydroxide.
Nixtamalization of maize was one of the great culinary discoveries of the world, allowing us to unlock the amino acids of corn to make a balanced protein. Without knowing about nixtamalization, Columbus just made people sick and malnourished with the maize he took back to the Old World.
It is kind of a pity that Columbus, making landfall in Lisbon after his first crossing, felt compelled to go brag about his discovery to King John II of Portugal. The Italian Navigator was always sniffing around for grants. Had he kept mum about it until he got back to Spain, John would not have complained to Ferdinand and Isabella and they in turn would not have gone running to the Pope (Pope Alexander VI /Rodrigo Borgia) who came up with an encyclical that precipitated the Treaty of Tordesillas and today's claim by Guatemala for 53% of Belize.
James’ wife throws a knife switch and engages a 10 HP motor that turns a pulley shaft, the daughter loads her washed corn into the hopper. When done, the masa is bagged, weighed and handed to Chris who pays her a few dollars.
We stop at the neighbors’ and pick out our 30-lb. turkey, which goes live into a gunny sack for transport in the dugout back up to Maya Mountain Research Farm.
Teaching permaculture in a culture such as this, one is never quite sure whether Albert Bartlett’s classic lecture on the exponential function has much meaning. People here have a hard time relating to the doubling times of bacteria in a bottle. But what time is it when all the available cleared land is occupied and you have to cut down the forest to make more space for houses? Answer: One minute to midnight.