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February 2016 Vol. 53 No. 6

Left Coast Press

The following review appeared in the February 2016 issue of CHOICE. The review is for your internal use only. Please review our Permission and Reprints Guidelines or email

Social & Behavioral Sciences

2015-2902 CIP
Ford, Anabel. Maya forest garden: eight millennia of sustainable cultivation of the tropical woodlands, by Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh. Left Coast, 2015. 260p bibl index afp (New frontiers in historical ecology, 6) ISBN 9781611329971, $94.00; ISBN 9781611329988 pbk, $34.95.

Ford (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara) and Nigh (Centro Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores, Chiapas) propose an expanded model of milpa agriculture founded in Maya agroforesty, in which the Maya, yesterday and today, manage all stages of the famous swidden cycle (including the allegedly fallow stages) and transform, cultivate, enhance, and exploit a diverse woodland—a Maya forest garden—of species useful for subsistence and trade.  The authors refute the “myth of the milpa,” the narrative that the ancient Maya collapsed in population and cultural vigor because they overreached the limits of environmental sustainability with a milpa agriculture that destroyed soils and deforested landscapes.  They argue instead that any “collapse” was political.  Their analysis concludes that Maya forest gardens could and did support dense populations and that the inventory of their species makeup reveals centuries of continuous human management.  Ford and Nigh bring decades of field research to this book and draw on ethnography, agroecology, ethno- and paleobotany, archaeology, historical climate data, and ethnohistory.  Even today, Maya forest gardeners cultivate sustainably but are threatened by Euro-informed models of agriculture that view tropical lowlands as suitable mainly for destructive pasturing.  Scholars interested in tropical swiddeners and Mesoamericans in particular should read this discussion.

--A. E. Adams, Central Connecticut State University

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Most levels/libraries.