Deciding How We Want Our Landscapes to Look

A-17: Linking Landscape, Forests and People: The Historical Roots of Biocultural Diversity


Nicholas Brokaw presents findings on the long-term impacts of Maya occupation on the landscape.
Nicholas Brokaw presents findings on the long-term impacts of Maya occupation on the landscape.

The landscape we see around us today reflects decisions made and actions taken by many people over long periods of time. They made decisions about what trees to plant and where to plant them, how to modify the land for agriculture, which lands to preserve, and which lands to develop. Today’s landscape is the interplay of human culture and the natural environment, an interaction that forms the basis for the study of biocultural diversity, which concerns patterns associated with “natural” and “cultural” landscapes.

Seven researchers presented their work on projects that ranged from a study of the impact of ancient Maya land uses on current Central American forests, to land use change in Italy, to environmental greening in Nigeria.

Although the research varied in geographic location and human history, each project concerned the interaction of human culture and the natural environment, and more subtly, whether those interactions could be sustained over time or if they involved altering natural resources in ways that made human habitation difficult.

For an example of non-sustainability, consider the impacts of the Maya on their landscape. According to Nicholas Brokaw, the Maya flourished between 300 A.D. and 950 A.D., when their population peaked and then rapidly declined. Palynology research, which studies sediments, shows that as the Maya population grew, forest cover in the area decreased, a trend that was reversed when the Maya population crashed.

How did Maya land use affect today’s distribution, composition, and abundance of tree species? Using field work that included archaeology, geoarchaeology, and ecology, Brokaw determined that areas located on Maya ruins had different species composition and that the trees themselves were larger than in areas not found on ruins.

But whether this discovery means that the Maya cultivated the species now found in their ruins, or whether the species merely found better growing conditions in areas affected by the Maya, remains unclear. Perhaps the most defensible conclusion that can be drawn is that forest regrowth reflected Maya land use patterns, which included field crops in uplands, kitchen gardens, and tree crops.

Compare the Maya example of non-sustainability with findings from the Italian National Register of Historical Rural Landscapes, a catalog of the diverse rural landscapes developed in Italy over thousands of years of history.

Forty percent of Italy’s farmland has disappeared since 1911, while forest land has doubled over the same period. From 1990 to 2006, 8,206 hectares of land have been urbanized, mostly around existing urban areas.  According to speaker Mauro Agnoletti, the development of the register was inspired in part by the need to develop a national plan for rural development. Changes in land use provide challenges to preserving the quality of life for both rural and urban populations and maintaining desired connections between Italians and their historic landscapes.

Adebayo John Julius presented a study on the influence of culture on environmental greening in Nigeria, noting that the idea of environmental greening, or developing green spaces in cities or rural areas, is no longer a new concept. However, what goes unrecognized is that the greening often can be part of a deeper connection between a culture and the surrounding environment.

Trees can play a major role in local customs and traditions. According to Julius, people in Nigeria plant trees to celebrate marriages and births, for recreation, and to create natural shrines. Over time, these trees become part of the landscape and develop personal and cultural meaning beyond any economic or biological purpose they serve.

Written by: Peter Gomben

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