In February 2018, archaeologists working with the National Geographic Society announced that they had uncovered evidence proving that the Ancient Maya Empire was far larger, more densely populated, and had done more to transform its environment than scientists had previously appreciated. Using a new technology called LIDAR, the team was able to peer through the dense forest cover that blankets the northern lowlands of Guatemala, digitally revealing cities, elevated highways, and massive earthworks used for water control and warfare. Scientists claimed that the technology showed that up to 20 million people had inhabited the ancient Maya domain, in which “every inch of land” had been put into production—making the ancient Maya one of the largest and most technologically sophisticated empires of the ancient world. The discovery renewed calls to step up the enforcement of conservation laws in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, where the study was conducted.
The question of just how many ancient Maya there were—and what that meant for today’s forest—is a question freighted with a long history of political and racial violence. National Geographic’s claims aside, evidence of a large population goes back at least to the 1910s, when the archaeologist Sylvanus Morley estimated a peak of 15 million (and a minimum of several million) based on a couple of field expeditions, the testimony of his local guides, and some basic extrapolation. In the 1930s and 1940s, the lower of Morley’s estimates inspired Guatemalan nationalists and scientists at the United Fruit Company to dream of “resurrecting” the old empire by through mass conversion of the “idle” rainforests to timber plantations and industrial agriculture. The belief that many millions of ancient Maya had lived prosperously for nearly 3,000 years in the tropical lowlands was widely accepted into the 1960s, when it fell out of favor. The reasons for this change in attitude had less to do with new scientific findings in the jungle than a violent rupture in Guatemala’s political landscape.
In 1954, a CIA-backed mercenary army overthrew Guatemala’s popular democratic government that had passed a land reform two years earlier. Supported by a reactionary oligarchy, the new regime dismantled the “communist” land reform and cracked down on all dissent, killing thousands of peasant leaders, union activists, and moderate politicians who demanded a return to democratic rule. By 1960, widespread and arbitrary repression sparked open revolt, initiating a thirty-six year civil war that pitted successive military governments against leftist guerrillas, reformist politicians, workers, students, some Catholic priests, and peasant civilians. In the 1960s, the Guatemalan military targeted the lowland forests for economic development, hoping to use the abundant precious woods and subsoil minerals to fuel industrialization that they believed would defuse popular resentment. The army turned the forests where the Maya Biosphere is today into an extractive fortress, excluding peasants who might “waste” its natural resources or use the cover of the forest canopy to involve themselves in subversive activity. The army also sponsored scientific studies by the UN FAO and other development agencies to stimulate a logging industry that it controlled and profited from directly. Findings that implied that agricultural settlement was feasible were suppressed. The officer in charge of developing the lowland frontier flatly told a gathering of social luminaries that “Morley got it wrong.” Anyone who argued for settling small farmers in the lowlands was dismissed as “irrational” and “political”—as opposed to the army and its forest scientist partners, who embodied “economic” and “rational” use.
While the Guatemalan army was getting into the forestry business and increasingly targeting ethnic Maya as part of its counterinsurgency campaign, its agents and apologists helped to popularize stories about the ancient Maya “collapse.” One version of this story, dating to the geologist Charles Wythe Cooke’s reflections on so many ancient Maya cities sat near swamplands, blamed runaway population growth and forest clearing for grain cultivation, which he argued had desiccated the local environment and silted up hypothetical primeval lakes. In this scenario, the ancient Maya had unleashed a man-made ecological catastrophe for the ages, and left a Malthusian fable for the here and now. The lesson was clear: protect the forests from “slash-and-burn” agriculture (which the ancient lowland Maya were assumed to have practiced, because twentieth century Maya in the highlands did), or face a civilizational disaster. Cooke never had any evidence to support his hypothesis, but it fit into preexisting narratives about deforestation and desertification in the disciplines of scientific forestry and soil conservation. Furthermore, Paul Erlich’s warning of a third world “population bomb” had helped to make the tropical peasant the prime explanation for global environmental degradation. US and European foresters played key leadership and advisory roles in the Guatemalan military’s forestry activities from the 1960s through the 1980s, and echoed army officers’ pronouncements that irrationally large families of “nomadic” farmers had to be kept out of the forests. By the 1980s, variants of Cooke’s deforestation-and-collapse narrative were common sense among conservationists in Guatemala, the Guatemalan army was “draining the human sea” of Maya peasants in a genocidal scorched earth campaign, and Morley was all but forgotten.
The peace accords that ended Guatemala’s civil war in 1996 were supposed to guarantee the peasantry’s subsistence rights, but they have been ignored in practice. The army’s old logging reserves, now managed by NGOs and civilian conservation agencies, have played an important role in limiting peasants’ political options for accessing land in the postwar era. Peasants who have lived in the Maya Biosphere Reserve for decades, or even longer, continue to be evicted for the sake of protecting wildlife and “virgin” forest from “invaders” who threaten to repeat the mistakes of the ancient Maya and poach archaeological artifacts for cash.
National Geographic’s flashy announcement called for stricter conservation enforcement to protect the Maya forest and the ruins beneath it. Paradoxically, the knowledge that the ancient Maya were so numerous and sophisticated now justifies the exclusion of their descendants from their own homeland—making demography another weapon in an unending counterinsurgent war.