Sustainable Practices from the Maya World

12 | 04 | 2021

From an ancestral heritage born of the wisdom of direct contact with nature, here’s a glimpse at the sustainable practices of Maya culture…

The world’s indigenous peoples,accounting for 5% of the planet’s population, protect some 80% of its biodiversity. This reflects their deep understanding of maintaining a balance with the environment. (Some lessons on conservation from the world’s indigenous peoples are here.) There’s little doubt this balance is due to their relationship with the natural world, and with the ways such groups of people have found to take advantage of the resources available to them. But this also reflects a deeper reality: conservation and respect for nature are an ancestral cultural heritage, part of a ritual configuration, and a reflection of a respect for nature that’s, unfortunately, been lost in a good part of the world.

Indigenous peoples know that the fate of humanity can’t be independent of other species and their ecosystems. But further, their relationships with nature remain a part of a spiritual and cosmogonic configuration. One such group, the Maya, maintains ancient practices to this day. It’s a culture which demonstrates that sustainable relationships with the environment are possible, though they’re urgent, too. Through moderation, regeneration, and leaving the least possible impact on the ecosystems from which resources are extracted, they’re after all, our biocultural heritage.

The Maya live in a territory of some 40,000 square kilometers of jungle. It’s home to a good number of endemic plants and animals. They recognize and protect this treasure. The Maya Jungle has been empirically studied for generations. They live off of it through sustainable practices, with little ecological impact, using cultivated fields, backyard orchards, and livestock cultivation, beekeeping, and natural construction materials like guano palm and vines.

The Maya Solar

The organization of Maya community territory in Yucatan is based on kinship relationships. The land is divided in parts called solar —territorial units between 250 and 1,000 square meters for traditional agricultural systems, animal rearing, and social relations.

This traditional division of the earth emerged from the socio-spatial distribution of Maya civilization millennia ago. It was modified during the colonial period but retains many of its original characteristics. A dynamic space of social and economic interactions, it’s also environmental. Solares are managed sustainably: they promote diversity, and the association and distribution of the natural resources, among them light, water, and soil.

Within a solar, multiple interactions develop to respond to the social structure of Maya communities. It’s where the family economy emerges and develops. All activities have a space, and this sometimes includes a construction intended specifically for the purpose. Rest and social coexistence within the space happens in a naj, the traditional home of the Maya. This is accompanied by a kitchen (k’oben) which is normally a separate construction with characteristics appropriate to cooking. Artisanal and religious activities also take place here. In the most urbanized areas of the Yucatan Peninsula, this type of housing and the land plot as a system, are beginning to disappear. Together, the many social and environmental relations that happen there are disappearing too.

On the solar a good number of plants are grown, too. Among them are fruit trees, maize, vegetables, and medicinal plants. Some species are considered structural, such as sour orange and guano palm. Animals include pigs, ducks, rabbits, and hens bred on the site. They provide an essential part of the contemporary Maya diet.

The Guano Palm

A palm tree —bonxaan in the Mayan language— is a primordial element of the Maya solar. Due to its durability, it’s used for the construction of roofs, as well as in basketry, in utensils, as fodder, and as a medicinal plant. The traditional harvest of the guano is considered a sustainable activity as its management allows for its natural replacement. The palm continually renews itself.

Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University.

The guano palm has been harvested by Maya communities since before the Spanish conquest and is part of the micro-habitat that makes up a solar. The disappearance of these plots in the urban areas of Yucatan has also reduced the harvest of this traditional palm.

Maya Backyard

As the name indicates, the space might be defined as the home orchard of the traditional Maya  home. If the solar defines a wider universe, the Maya backyard refers to the tradition of maintaining a family garden, with trees and plants for food, but also medicinal herbs and animals.


Since pre-Hispanic times, the Maya have maintained a close relationship with bees and beekeeping. In fact, bees have their own deity in the Maya cosmogony. A much-loved bee species, Melipona yucatanica, the “sacred Maya bee,” is further proof of the close relationship with these insects. The honey is not only consumed as food but is used for medicinal purposes, too.

– Creative Commons

Bees provide a fundamental link with many of the world’s food crops and ecosystems. Sadly, these and other pollinators like bumblebees, are currently endangered. The relationship of respect and sacrality that the Maya maintain with these insects and their products sets an example for the rest of the world.

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La Vaca Independiente celebrates the wisdom and knowledge of the Maya, a living and vibrant culture. La Vaca works for the restoration and conservation of its tangible and intangible heritage, cultural and economic regeneration, and for the development of sustainable projects and a regenerative economy in the Maya territory, through the Baktún Initiative.

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