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The Maya Tropical Forest

The Maya Tropical Forest
People, Parks, and Ancient Cities

The fascinating story of how the ancient and modern Maya peoples have utilized and defended the natural resources of their rainforest home.

June 2006
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368 pages | 6 x 9 | 32 b&w photos, 1 line drawing, 6 maps, 2 tables |

The Maya Tropical Forest, which occupies the lowlands of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, is the closest rainforest to the United States and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Western Hemisphere. It has been home to the Maya peoples for nearly four millennia, starting around 1800 BC. Ancient cities in the rainforest such as Palenque, Yaxchilan, Tikal, and Caracol draw thousands of tourists and scholars seeking to learn more about the prehistoric Maya. Their contemporary descendants, the modern Maya, utilize the forest's natural resources in village life and international trade, while striving to protect their homeland from deforestation and environmental degradation.

Writing for both visitors and conservationists, James Nations tells the fascinating story of how ancient and modern Maya peoples have used and guarded the rich natural resources of the Maya Tropical Forest. He opens with a natural history that profiles the forest's significant animals and plants. Nations then describes the Maya peoples, biological preserves, and major archaeological sites in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Drawing on more than twenty-five years of conservation work in the Maya Tropical Forest, Nations tells first-hand stories of the creation of national parks and other protected areas to safeguard the region's natural resources and archaeological heritage. He concludes with an expert assessment of the forest's future in which he calls for expanded archaeological tourism to create an ecologically sustainable economic base for the region.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes on Names and Orthography
  • On Distances and Measures
  • Epochs of Civilization in the Maya Tropical Forest
  • Part One: Time, Land, and Forest
    • 1. Introduction to the Maya Tropical Forest
      • Sidebar: Biosphere Reserves
    • 2. History of the Maya Tropical Forest
      • The New Land's Form
      • The Rise of Maya Civilization
      • The Classic Maya
      • First Encounters
      • A Mysterious Poison
      • Conquest of the Lowland Maya
      • The Rise of the Western World
    • 3. Natural History of the Maya Tropical Forest
      • Introduction
      • Weather
      • Animals
      • Sidebar: U kunyah chäk k'ek'en (Lacandón Maya Chant to Cure the Coatimundi Growling Disease)
      • Wild Plants
  • Part Two: Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize
    • 4. Mexico
      • The Selva Lacandona
      • People of the Selva Lacandona
      • Protected Areas
      • Archaeological Sites
      • Sidebar: The Best Pilot in Chiapas
      • Sidebar: Letter from Calakmul
    • 5. Guatemala
      • Introduction
      • The Maya Tropical Forest in Guatemala
      • Modern Peoples in the Guatemalan Petén
      • Protected Areas
      • Major Archaeological Sites in the Guatemalan Petén
      • Sidebar: The Lacandón Maya in Guatemala
    • 6. Belize
      • Introduction
      • Geography of Belize
      • Modern Peoples
      • Protected Areas
      • Archaeological Sites
  • Part Three: The Future of the Maya Tropical Forest
    • 7. The Future of the Selva Maya
      • Introduction
      • Protected Areas: Threats and Solutions
      • Archaeology: Threats and Solutions
      • Cultural Diversity: Threats and Solutions
      • The Challenge of Population Growth
      • The Promise of Ecological Tourism
      • Regional Incentives
      • Lessons from the Ancient Maya
  • Glossary
  • References Cited
  • Index

James D. Nations directs the Center for State of the Parks at the National Parks Conservation Association in Washington, D.C.


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Working in the Maya Tropical Forest for more than 25 years gave me the opportunity to examine scores of books on the region, but my research in libraries and bookstores never turned up the one book I was looking for. I was seeking a book that brought together the basic information on the region's people, archaeology, and natural resource conservation. Most of all, the book would tell interesting stories about the people, history, and wildlife of the Maya Tropical Forest. This volume represents my effort to create that book for future travelers and researchers.

The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, and Ancient Cities tells a unified story of the lowland tropical forest of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. The Maya Tropical Forest is the closest rainforest to the United States and one of the most visited tourist sites in the Western Hemisphere. Journalists have called the Maya the most fascinating ancient culture since Egyptian pharaohs first inspired the public imagination, and few months go by without at least one major article on the ancient or modern Maya in National Geographic,Natural History, Newsweek, or Time. Descriptions of Maya archaeology appear regularly in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. Simultaneously, questions about the fate of the world's rainforests have seeped deep into public concern during the past 25 years, and generations of students are seeking to learn more about the fate of these forests.

The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, and Ancient Cities guides the reader through the past and future of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, telling some of the stories I have heard and experienced in the region's archaeological sites, national parks, and communities. The book describes the region's plants and wildlife, explains how the ancient Maya used and guarded these resources, and shows how indigenous people utilize these same plants and animals today in village life and international trade.

Sections within the chapters on Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize take the reader on quick tours of the protected areas of the Maya Tropical Forest, from Mexico's Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve to the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Reserve of southern Belize. On these pages, you will learn how the protection of these parks and reserves also protects the artifacts of ancient Maya civilization and the biological germplasm that will help define the future of humankind. You will also find an explanation of how the expanding industry of ecotourism helps protect both national parks and archaeological sites.

The book is intended for travelers to the Maya region and students of the region's environment and natural history. Tourism, especially nature-based tourism, is increasing every year in the Maya Tropical Forest. Among the most visited states in Mexico are Chiapas and Quintana Roo, homeland of the Maya Tropical Forest. The 1994 Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico, focused world attention on the rainforest of the Selva Lacandona, the westernmost part of the Maya Tropical Forest, and tourism to the state is again on the rise, now that the rebellion has calmed.

Tourism in Guatemala is increasing by 9 percent per year, in the wake of the 1996 Peace Accords that ended civil strife between the Guatemalan government and leftist guerrilla forces. Since 1985 the number of visitors to Tikal National Park has increased 29 percent annually.

In Belize, the government has recognized tourism as the number one generator of foreign exchange, and new ecological tourism facilities, hotels, and archaeological excavations bring thousands more visitors each year. The number of annual visitors has increased by more than 80 percent since the early 1990s.

But The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, and Ancient Cities is designed to be a reader's book, rather than a tourist guide. I have not attempted to write an on-site handbook to the area's attractions ("Turn left at Temple II and proceed north 150 meters (492 feet) . . ."). Instead, the book answers questions: Why did the Maya build the stone skyscraper city of Tikal in the middle of a tropical forest? How did Hernán Cortés's wounded horse change the history of the Maya people? Why do the descendants of the ancient Maya gather wild products from the forest, and which of their products will you find in your kitchen? How did Maya fish harvesting lead to the development of birth control pills? How does wildlife conservation assist efforts to protect Maya heritage and traditional cultures? What happened to the ancient Maya people, and what is the fate of their forest?

Structure of the Book

I have divided The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, and Ancient Cities into three parts. Part One introduces the Maya Tropical Forest, describes the history of the Maya people, and surveys the most interesting aspects of the region's ecology, plants, and animals.

Part Two is divided into chapters on Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. In turn, each country chapter presents sections on (a) modern peoples, (b) national parks and wildlife reserves, and (c) archaeological sites. Through this structure, a reader traveling to Guatemala can focus on the sites, people, and protected areas of that country, while a researcher interested in environmental conservation throughout the area can turn to the sections on protected areas for each of the three countries.

Part Three of the book is a concluding chapter, "The Future of the Maya Tropical Forest." Here, I have pulled together information from 25 years of research in the region to predict how current trends in the Maya Tropical Forest will likely impact its future: increasing ecotourism, expanding population growth, and--with luck and hard work--a renewed focus on the economic and intrinsic benefits of its natural areas.

If You Go . . . The Maya Tropical Forest

At the end of the description of each protected area and archaeological site, I have included a short section aimed at individuals who plan to travel to these areas. There, you will find an overview of the parks and sites and notes on their importance. But you should also carry a recent tourist guide to the region, so you can access information on restaurants, travel arrangements, and accommodations. Among the best of these guides are Lonely Planet's The Maya Route, Rough Guides' The Maya World, and The Route of the Mayas, each of which lists restaurant and hotel prices, along with brief descriptions of towns and attractions in the Maya region.

Keep in mind that accommodations in the Maya Tropical Forest range from the luxurious to the ludicrous. At the high end of the continuum, you can check into five-star hotels in Flores, Palenque, and Belize City and loll around the swimming pool after a sweaty morning of touring ruins. On the other end of the continuum, you can fall sleep in a hammock in a Maya village, sharing a mud-floored house with chickens and dogs, while wide-eyed children stare at you through gaps in the walls.

Traveling in the Maya Tropical Forest is an adventure. From a mule trip to Mirador in Guatemala, to a climb up Little Quartz Ridge in Belize, to a raft ride down the Río Usumacinta in Mexico, getting there is more than half the fun. The author's message here is simple: Let the mystery of the forest, its history, and its people set their own appropriate pace. Don't fixate on time schedules from the outside world. Recognize that in the Maya Tropical Forest, things move at their own natural tempo and everything is subject to change. Keep your wits about you and never stop going on adventures.


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This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
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