November 2014

A Small Sample of Who We Are


Maceo Carrillo Martinet

We all have a relative, friend, work associate, or even a bit of ourselves that is pessimistic about the future of humanity. We are told that a gloomy future is our destiny, that everything we touch we eventually destroy. Even the cinematic aliens that visit our planet, like the character named Prat in the movie K-Pax, proclaim that “it’s hard to imagine how we’ve made it this far.” Pessimism toward humanity seems to have more to do with our level of education, or lack thereof, rather than the many threats we face.

Although there is rampant deforestation going on today, for most of humanity’s history, in many cases, we have actually been amazing forest stewards. For more than 11,000 years, the indigenous communities of Thailand, Vietnam, Borneo and other countries throughout Southeast Asia cultivated an array of fruit, nuts, vegetables and meats from the tropical rain forests.i The ingenious idea of planting a “food forest,” a concept in today’s permaculture lexicon, is nothing new. Thousands of years before people learned how to grow rice in that region, communities were cultivating and harvesting all sorts of food from the forests.

The Amazon rain forest, just like the southeastern Asian forests on the other side of the planet, is often portrayed as an untouched wilderness with dangerous forms of life. Researchers digging through the forest floor are now corroborating what the local Mayan communities have always said: The forests are part of ancient gardens cultivated by the people.ii The mix of tropical vegetation you see today throughout the Amazon is, to a great extent, the result of human management and stewardship. Over hundreds of generations, the natives planted various types of trees. Today these “food forests” still feed the local people and wildlife.

For millennia people have harvested fruit, nuts, wood and many other things from the Amazon without destroying it. Some argue that the human-caused destruction in the region was small because the population was small, but recent research has revealed some of the largest populated communities in the world, at the time, lived in those forests. Amazingly, researchers are finding that humans actually helped improve the forest. Archaeological excavations reveal that the Maya created a more nutritious tropical soil, which helped nourish the people. Think of it as a massive, community-based, soil-engineering project. The Mayan people developed an ingenious method, which today is commonly called biochar, to retain nutrients and minerals in tropical soils that are continuously being leached by drenching rains. The Maya are just one example demonstrating that a human community can live for thousands of years while contributing to the long-term health of the soil and the forest.iii

In 2011, a fascinating study came out in Science magazine in which researchers documented both the health of the forest and the people in 84 land-based communities across six countries in East Africa and South Asia. The researchers found that when forest management, i.e., rulemaking, zoning, and land-use planning, was still controlled by a community-based process with traditional roots still intact, the forest biodiversity and resiliency to climate change actually increased.iv

In fact, more countries around the world are starting to realize that transferring forest management back to local communities can benefit both the economy and the environment. Over the past 20 years, a forested area larger than Alaska—about 494 million acres—has been putting out-of-state or federal land-use decision-making back into local indigenous community-based management.v Many argue, rightfully so, that an essential tool to fight climate change—and poverty—is to protect local community control of forests and return forest management to indigenous Today, locally based communities manage 19 percent of the world’s forests. It’s a complete 180-degree reversal of the policies espoused by the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and other authoritative institutions that proclaimed over many decades that local and indigenous people didn’t know how to properly manage forests.

The acequia system, part of a rich cultural tapestry of water management throughout the U.S. Southwest, is an amazing example of stewardship. Through an engineered system of gently sloping ditches running along the edges of the valley, water revered as the “blood of Christ” is delivered to each village. The slow seepage of acequia water infiltrates the entire river valley floor, recharging the aquifer, spreading water across the valley farther than the river would do naturally, and actually improving the water quality for downstream communities. For over 400 years, the act of sharing water has helped the verdant valley stay lush, allowing the people to grow a variety of chile, corn, beans and many other nutritious drought tolerant crops.

Our ancient history of taking care of the common land and the common people is proof that humanity is not simply “solitary, poor, nasty and brutish,” as Thomas Hobbes, one of the philosophical godfathers of today’s capitalist economy, would like you to think. The survival of humanity has never been about the “survival of the fittest.” It has been the “survival of the collective.” Humanity’s instinctual ability to help each other and work together is indeed our defining trademark. One might not know what “sustainability” means, but the idea and principle of this word is in our DNA, as is the urge to treat each other with dignity, respect and justice. These traits are just a small sampling of who we really are.


Maceo Carrillo Martinet, Ph.D., is a New Mexico-based ecologist/educator working on ecological restoration and community-based environmental education.


i Hunt and Rabett. 2013. Holocene landscape intervention and plant food production strategies in island and mainland Southeast Asia. Journal of Archaeological ScienceDOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2013.12.011.

ii Ross, N.J. 2011. Modern tree species composition reflects ancient Maya “forest gardens” in northwest Belize. Ecological Applications 21: 75–84.

iii Mann, C. 2006. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Vintage Books, New York.

iv Persha et al. 2011. Social and ecological synergy: local rulemaking, forest livelihoods, and biodiversity conservation. Science 331: 16061608.

v Agrawal. A. 2012. Local institutions and the governance of forest commons. In Comparative environmental politics: theory, practice, and prospects. P.F. Steinberg and S.D. VanDeveer, eds. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

vi Stevens et al. 2014. Securing rights, combating climate change: how strengthening community forest rights mitigates climate change. World Resources Institute. Washington, DC. Accessible at Juan Estevan Arellano. 2014. Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water. University of New Mexico Press, New Mexico.


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