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Agriculture and Mayan Society Resilience


The Maya is a group of natives that lived in the Mesoamerica region mainly on the Yucatan peninsula. This peninsula had a vast landscape which was good for agriculture thus making agriculture to be the main economic base for the Mayans. The Maya grew maize, beans, cotton, squash, and cocoa. Apart from farming the Maya also domesticated dogs and turkey although large domestic animals are missing in this culture. The Mayan interaction with their environment was guided by very stringent religious teachings which in turn enhanced this society’s survival.

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The classical period existed from 250 AD to 900 AD. During this period there was a change in agriculture activities which had a long-term impact on the Mayan culture. This essay is going to address all the changes that took place around this time and how they affected the environment which put Mayan society on the brink of extinction. The lesson we get from this analysis will help us in taking the necessary steps in conserving our environment in order to make the world a better place.


Native cultures enhance the survival of the society without disturbing the ecological equilibrium that exists in their ecosystem. This is because the natives know that their survival is entirely dependent on the environment and their relationship with the environment is guided by various traditions that revolve around religious activities. All these traditions ensure that society does not extract resources from the environment without giving something back. Through this knowledge, the Maya managed to co-exist in their environment peacefully without destroying the environment. However, changes took place in the economic and social structure and the equilibrium was disturbed thus agriculture could no longer support this civilization.

Hughes (2001, p.42) suggests that ‘before the effects of clearing for agriculture and building, the Southern Maya lowlands were covered by tall rainforest interrupted by scattered savanna and wetlands.’ This rainforest had very huge trees with brilliant canopies. Trees were in many numbers, berries were abundant and insects were of all kinds. The human population was small and this means that no pressure was put on the environment. The Mayans practiced slash and burn farming which gave exhausted land and soil a chance to regain fertility during the fallow period. Later on, intensive agriculture was invented and it utilized all the available soils. (“New World” p. 2) suggests that apart from slush and burning method ‘soils were enriched through cleaning, irrigation, and terracing.’

The slaves were heavily involved in farming as well as in terrace constructions. Hughes (2001, p.44) suggests that ‘drainage and irrigation canals had been constructed in wetlands.’ For instance, it’s widely accepted that in the Pull trouser swamp, crisscrossing swamps had been dug, with raised fields between them where crops could be grown. Archaeological records also show that tree species that were used as food increased as the population in the Maya started to rise as an attempt to increase production. An increase in population brought about political unrest and with no time the civilization crumbled. An increase in population led to the establishment of intensive farming which meant that the fallow period decreases and with time they disappeared. As a result soil quality deteriorated and the yields declined.

Hughes (2001, p.44) suggests that ‘as the Maya reached the peak of population and material culture in 750 AD, warfare increased, becoming more celebrated and more destructive.’ In summary, the Mayan civilization collapsed as a result of overpopulation which exerted more pressure on the fragile ecosystem, internal upheavals, and as a result of attacks from Chichimec barbarians who occupied the northern regions of the peninsula. The wars did not make the Maya disappear but they destroyed their environment. This is because immigrants in the region cleared more land for agriculture and they hunted the animals in the rain forest. Capitalists have acquired huge tracks of land for farming and ranches in the region and the poor people are forced to settle in the lowlands where the soils are poor.

Therefore, it is correct to assert that the poor people who had vast knowledge on conserving the environment are the ones who are suffering the most. These people are denied a chance of deciding on how the environment should be utilized by the government, foreign bodies, wood product businesses, and multinational banks. Although the Mayan culture enabled them to survive, today it does not guarantee them their survival. Earlier on they invented agricultural methods as highlighted above for use in different parts of their landscape. But with all this genius and civilization they suffered an ecological collapse. This makes Hughes point out that ‘within the context of an ecosystem, no species can succeed indefinitely by monopolizing as many of its energy streams as possible while increasing its number without limit.’

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Thus agriculture to the Mayans was not a blessing at all. This is because the increase in food production led to a surge in the human population and with time social and political hierarchy emerged. Political states were established and they were fed by the slaves and the farming Mayans. The body polity also had military organizations for combat purposes and this resulted in unending conflicts in the region. Population growth demanded more resources and since the ecosystem was not expanding, problems were bound to be encountered. In the beginning, this demand was met through various mechanisms. Hughes (2001, p. 48) argues that ‘the early cities had ways of postponing the inevitable crash –through conquering neighboring lands and cities, engaging in long-distance trade, importing metals and timber and adopting more intensive agriculture technologies such as irrigation.’ Although all these avenues were explored the basic problem still remained: the ecosystem could not be expanded.

These new ventures could not sustain the growing population for a long time. This is because the trade route had limits that could not be exceeded otherwise the energy which was used and the expenses needed to bring in new resources could exceed what was brought in. Clearing more land for cultivation culminated in deforestation which made flooding more serious and unpredictable. Intensive agriculture introduced serious erosion in the fields, salinization, and other factors that reduced production. Earlier on salinization was contained through the burning of wastes which produced ash that does not contain acids thus it could absorb the excess acids in the soil.

Ramlogan (2004, p.6) also points out that ‘the Mayan did have not strong animal rearing practices.’ Failure to do so meant that they did not produce enough manure which could have assisted in soil fertilization. Failure to deliver the required amounts of food forced the society to fall into growing conflicts, which contributed ultimately to its demise. Therefore I will not be wrong to claim that environmental abuse played a role in the collapse of this great civilization. Today we are experiencing the same problem as globalization matures in the contemporary world. First of all the world population has exceeded 6 billion people meaning that we have more mouths to feed and thus this population cannot be sustained using the traditional food growing practices.

In order to raise food production, we are turning away from traditional food crops to genetically modified foods that are grown in very controlled environments. This food does not add anything to the soil leading to increased soil infertility. In order to arrest this situation, we have turned on to using organic fertilizers that are produced in factories that are very acidic. Soil thus gets destroyed; becomes more acidic and thus once the fertilizers are not used there is nothing to harvest. Destruction of soil has brought about an increase in famine cases in the contemporary world and the problem is not going to ameliorate any time soon. MacAnany et al (2007, p.4) suggest that ‘without sufficient food stores, societies in the world may not have the resilience to survive famine and drought in years to come.’

More forest land is being cleared in order to create more farming lands and new residential areas. This has culminated in the depletion of the forest cover in the whole world and now we have to deal with the effects of deforestation. More floods are being reported everywhere. In addition, floods are accompanied by widespread cases of mudslides which result in the killing and displacement of many people. This kind of flood has been reported in India, Asia, and South America.

The globalized society is also walking on the same destructive path that the classical Mayans had used. This is because there are so many scenarios that are taking place in the world that shows that we are not at all taking care of our environment. Arguing along the same line Ramlogan (p.7) warns that ‘the conflict appears to have intensified, and we may be pushing ourselves to the brink of a global cataclysm.’ The industrial revolution for instance marked the onset of globalization and heavy industries were built in order to produce more goods that were in high demand in the market. Industrial capitalism enables man to use natural resources more exploitatively and has served as the link between productive force and the land, climate, and other resources.

Globalization has indeed led to contamination of the environment. The need for minerals to feed our ever-hungry industries has led to mining which leaves land scarred and unable to support any form of agriculture. The rise of consumerism has called for the replacement of products through technological advancement. With respect to the food, we realize that major problems concern packaging, disposal of waste products, and almost unrestricted use of natural resources required in sustaining the industry. Ramlogan (2004, p.12) points out that ‘consumerism itself has assisted in the larger process of indelibly shifting the balance between man and the environment.’ This is because agriculture is being liberalized in order to increase the yield at the expense of conserving our fragile environment.

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Shiva (1997) also points out that globalization of agriculture which is a move aimed at increasing food production ‘is leading to a decline in food production and productivity, a decline in conditions for farmers, and a decline in food security for consumers. Thus globalization is seen as a cause for deepening food insecurity in the world. We have to remember that decline in food security in the Mayan society was one cause of inventing new agriculture enhancing techniques which later on boomeranged causing the collapse of the society. Thus we have to be very cautious about the new agricultural techniques that we adopt because they May make us destroy our remaining part of the environment.


In conclusion, the Maya were agrarians with vast knowledge on environmental issues and this enabled them to survive in their ecosystem. However, population growth called for extensive farming methods in order to meet the increasing demand and this new farming method exerted a lot of pressure on the fragile ecosystem and it collapsed. Today, the human population is getting out of proportion, and to feed this large population we have to come up with new farming grounds and farming methods that are not compatible with the environment. Industrialization has resulted in green gas emissions which have in turn brought global warming. Global warming is taking its all on the environment through destruction and this is a major threat to our species survival. Therefore we have to revisit the reasons which led to the collapse of the great classic civilization in order to understand the magnitude of the problem that we are facing.

Work cited

  1. De Koninck, R. (1999) Deforestation in Vietnam. Ottawa: IDRC
  2. Hughes, D. J. An environmental history of the world. Humankinds changing role in the community of life. London: Routledge Publishers, pp. 30-48 2001
  3. Ian, H. sustainable agriculture and environment: Globalisation and the Impact of Trade Liberalisation. American Journal of Agricultural Economics. 2002
  4. MacAnany, P. A. and Negron, T. G. Bellicose Rulers and Climatological Peril? Retrofitting 21st century woes on 8th century Maya society. London: Cambridge university press, 2007 pp. 1-6
  5. Najam, A. Runnalls, D and Halle, M. Environment and Globalization. Five propositions. Copenhagen: International institute for sustainable Development, 2007. pp 3- 19
  6. New world civilization.
  7. Ramlogan, R. The Developing world and the environment: Making the case for effective protection of the global Environment. New York; university press of America publisher, 2004 pp.1-14
  8. Sharer, R. J. and Traxler, L. P. The Ancient Maya. Stanford: Stanford university press, 2006. pp. 800-885
  9. Webster, D. The Fall of the Ancient Maya: Solving the mystery of the Mayan Collapse. London: Thames and Hudson publishers, 2002

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"Agriculture and Mayan Society Resilience." StudyCorgi, 24 Oct. 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "Agriculture and Mayan Society Resilience." October 24, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "Agriculture and Mayan Society Resilience." October 24, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Agriculture and Mayan Society Resilience." October 24, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Agriculture and Mayan Society Resilience'. 24 October.

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