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Teeccino Blog

The Maya Forest Garden, Ramon Trees and Surviving Climate Change


Written by: Caroline MacDougall

TreeharvestYou may be wondering, “Now what is she going on about?”. Well, if you bear with me, I’d like to tell you about a revolutionary theory that proves that the Maya didn’t destroy their forest as the majority of scholars believe, but survived in an era of climate change and drought by practicing sustainable cultivation of the Maya forest for…eight millennia! Yes, eight thousand years!!

There’s an interesting Teeccino story in here too. It’s the story of how I fortuitously met Anabel Ford, Director of the MesoAmerican Research Center at the University of California in Santa Barbara, on a Saturday morning in our wonderful local farmer’s market. That very morning I was pondering where I could find information about the Maya civilization’s use of ramon seeds, the novel ingredient that is the base of Teeccino’s Maya flavors. It was 2005 and I can tell you that no one in North America was thinking about ramón trees and their seeds except two women who serendipitously happened to live in the same town of Santa Barbara. Both were passionate about preserving this tree that was so important to the Maya and to the rainforest.

As I strolled through booths filled with an abundance of organically grown fruits and vegetables, I was surprised to see in a corner of the market a hand-drawn sign with big letters trumpeting “Maya Coffee”. There were also large photos of ramón trees and a big jar full of their seeds. I stopped in shock. OMG! From a large coffee urn, a blonde-haired woman handed me a cup of ‘coffee’ while earnestly explaining about the benefits of ramón seeds and how the Maya drank them roasted and brewed like coffee!

There I was thinking about the copy I needed to write about ramón seeds for my press release, product labels etc. and there in front of me was an expert who had a trove of historical information about Maya traditions and the importance of the ramón tree to their culture and to forest preservation. Wow.

I couldn’t have found anyone more knowledgeable about the Maya’s use of the seeds than Anabel Ford. Her entire career has been devoted to proving that the Maya didn’t deforest Central America and then abandon their cities due to over-population and the collapse of corn-based agriculture. Instead, she has proven that the Maya actively gardened in the forest, cultivating ramón and other trees, vines, and botanicals that provided food, medicine and materials for their homes and clothing.

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 11.47.21 AMAnabel’s newly published book, The Maya Forest Garden, confronts the theory that the Maya succumbed to destructive agricultural practices and thus abandon their cities. Instead she proves that the Maya have continuously gardened within the forest for over 8,000 years while practicing their “milpa” system of agriculture. This little understood system of land use cycles through phases of fields to forest over 20-30 years. To the arriving Spaniards and still to scientists today, this sustainable system of land management has been ignored.

Anabel shows that the Maya left at least half the area in their towns as forest surrounding their homes. In fact, when the Spanish arrived and dominated their culture, the Viceroy prohibited them from planting forests within their towns. The Spanish wanted nice clean streets and permanently cleared fields just like they had left behind in Europe.

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The ramón tree was at the heart of the Maya forest garden. Towering at 130 ft in the upper canopy, the ramón tree is the only wind-pollinated tree in the entire Central American forest. Thus open areas in the forest are naturally reforested first by ramón seedlings sprouting from pollen carried there by the wind.

The Maya called the ramón tree, the corn tree, because they ground its seeds into flour for use like corn flour. They also roasted the seeds and drank them as a brewed hot beverage long before the Spaniards brought coffee to the Americas. When I first heard of ramón coffee, I had to taste it. But getting it took me almost 10 years as we worked with the Guatemalan government to prove that harvesting the abundant seeds within the forest wouldn’t harm the forest or starve any animals eating the seeds.

In fact, the seeds are really hard and only a wild boar has strong enough teeth to crunch them up. They don’t contain any fat so you can’t just pop them in your mouth and chew them. They have to be dried and ground in a flour mill. Since many of the people living in the forest now have been cut off from Maya traditions due to political disruption and relocation, these nutritious seeds were literally going to waste on the forest floor before we gringos came along and gave them economic value.

ramonbakingNow, over 10 years later, ramón trees and their seeds are recognized as a valuable food source that is free for the collection. The Guatemalan government supports women’s cooperatives that bake cookies and muffins with ramón flour for consumption in the school lunch programs. The tree is being replanted in open areas and reforestation is beginning.

Nevertheless, as Anabel says in her book, the future of the milpa system, which allows the forest and its inhabitants to live sustainably together, is unclear. She states, “In its high-performance mode, the Maya milpa is a form of 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.”

In other words, we can’t just conserve forests without making them economically productive for the people who live in or around them. With population growth and agricultural systems that depend on cleared land, our forests are under attack. Yet they are our best hope for carbon sequestration that can reverse climate change and help cool down our planet. Along with organic agriculture where it is proven that soil under organic systems captures carbon due to its high humus content, we can reverse the effects of too much CO2 in our atmosphere.

It’s called regenerative agriculture and the Maya have been practicing it for eight thousand years. You can still find traditional Maya families using the milpa system now just like their ancestors used so many years ago.

But deforestation is rampant everywhere in the tropics. I like to think that Teeccino has played a small role in helping to reverse this trend. As we support the harvest of ramón seeds and the planting of ramón trees in Central America, we’re helping to give economic incentive to preserve rainforests. Our use of ramón seeds is part of an effort to find many economically productive plants within the forest. Our success depends on many factors but with determination, we hope to overcome the obstacles and bring the value of the ramón tree back to its central place in the forest just like it has been for so many centuries to the Maya!

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 11.47.50 AMThings You Can Do To Support Anabel’s Work:

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

Posted in Caroline's Musings, Health Buzz, Teeccino Buzz

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