Monday, June 7, 2021

 Continuity or Contingency? Small steps lead to big change in Guatemalan forests

“Field Notes” on Matthew Krystal’s Presentation

~by James Meierhoff- UIC PhD Candidate~

How do we use our forests? I can still remember how wide my Belizean friend’s eyes grew when I told him that herds of large White-Tailed Deer regularly congregate in the forest preserve a few blocks from my house near Chicago, and no one hunts them. Likewise, I recall an anecdote an anthropological colleague once told me about the astonishment some of her workers had in Yucatan after she informed them that neither she nor just about anyone else in Chicagoland needs to collect firewood daily to cook with. In many parts of Central America however, the forests are not only home to valuable resources for day to day living, but also places where spiritual and community practice can come together to forge identities.

Dr. Matt Krystal’s (North Central College) presentation, “‘It's Our Tradition to Maintain the Forest': Indigenous Water Management in San Miguel Totonicapán” (recorded and on Facebook Live) was a slight change of pace from the more straight forward archaeological presentations recently hosted by the Chicago Archaeological Society. However, even though Dr. Krystal is a social anthropologist focusing on the modern societies in the Municipio of Totonicapán in the Guatemalan Highlands, his research is not without material components from which behavior and cultural practices can be interpreted (sounds like archaeology to me!). 

One way this community addressed issues of sustainable forest management was to redesign wood burning ovens to be more efficient, reportedly saving the equivalent of a full tree per year per household. Likewise, simple low maintenance water filtration systems are employed throughout the community which relieves the need to boil water for drinking and cooking, thus using less forest resources for daily life. These are just a few of the steps which are part of a volunteer-based endeavor to provide basic daily resources for and by the local communities themselves. Not only is such a local program of resource management more dependable and equitable than what may have been provided by national services, they are also of much higher quality, and by design foster a regional autonomy that has deep roots in antiquity.

Krystal’s research in the Guatemalan Highlands is completely immersive and reciprocal. Far from just an observer of indigenous forest management, Krystal participates in collaborative ethnography where learning and engagement is a mutually beneficial enterprise between all parties involved. The autonomy created by self-governance of local resources spills into many other aspects of community life – such as agricultural production, where coffee farmers of Totonicapán have partnered with North Central Collage’s student organization Enactus who roast and sell their coffee in the United States. This causes more stability in an otherwise volatile global commodity market while giving college students the opportunity to participate in international business relations (and coffee production!).

As for more classic archaeological applications, Krystal discussed household level water management seen in the archaeological record of several ancient communities in Mesoamerica including the large ancient metropolis of Tikal as well as the smaller community of Chan – which in many ways is reminiscent of the communities of Totonicapán. Was management of natural resources such as water maintained by the smaller ancient communities due to a failure of regional governance in the past to provide basic services to the masses? Is this a possible correlation to the community action he observes in Guatemala today?

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