Ancient Spirituality Guides a Maya Town’s Conservation Efforts
By Jorge Rodríguez
It was Thursday, Nov. 8, but the Mayan calendar marked the day as Wukub' Q'anil, or 7 Rabbit, a good day to ask for the rebirth of sterile lands and the fertility of all living beings.
Rumualdo López, a Maya priest and spiritual guide, was prepared to hike up to the top of Siete Orejas, a mountain sacred to the Maya Mam of Concepción Chiquirichapa, a town of roughly 18,000 in western Guatemala, to perform a fire ceremony. The purpose was to connect with the energies of the mountain and ask for wisdom and the blessing of the Creator, the Ajaw as the Maya Mam call it.
"Nowadays there are many people who prefer to connect with the Ajaw through other rites, such as Christians or Catholics," López had said the day before the ceremony, checking the Mayan calendar. "The important thing is for people to recognize the energy that surrounds us and to connect with it, no matter what type of beliefs they have."
As has been done for thousands of years, Mayan traditions and knowledge are still passed on by word of mouth. Priests or Ajq'ij, which means "counter of days" in the Maya K'iche language, rely on the Mayan calendar, as an astrological chart, to understand the energies of each day and determine when to perform certain ceremonies and what to ask of the Ajaw.
There is no specific time at which ceremonies should be performed. Sometimes the first light of dawn is when guides give thanks to the Ajaw and all the living energies of the universe. On this occasion, however, López, along with Marcelino Aguilar, the head of Concepción's Department of Protected Areas (DAP, by its Spanish initials), decided to set out from the town center for the mountain at 8:00 in the morning.
Like López, Aguilar believes in the knowledge of their ancestors. "We all depend on each other to survive," he said. That is why he has dedicated his life to protecting the environment and educating the people of Concepción to value and respect the forest.
A sign inside Concepción Chiquirichapa's Kum Kum Wutz park on Siete Orejas mountain reads "Without the environment there is no future." Jorge Rodríguez / Mongabay
The Way to the Mountaintop
To reach the top of Siete Orejas takes about 45 minutes by car, one and a half hours by foot. While driving his pickup truck, a Maya Mam radio station playing in the background, Aguilar talked about the community's work over the past four decades to reforest and protect its section of the mountain's cloud forest. Since the 2000s the community got the government to designate a 1,200-hectare (4.6-square-mile) park on Siete Orejas as a protected area; regulated the extraction of organic matter, wood and other natural resources there; created the DAP, a municipal office dedicated to the protected area's management; and started several environmental education and sustainable economic development programs.
While Aguilar spoke, López listened. Sometimes, he would smile or add some detail to the story: "When I was young, this [forest] used to have fewer trees than it has right now." But most of the time his face was serious, as if he were feeding on energy from the forest that rose above the dirt road leading up the mountain.
Rumualdo López, a Maya spiritual guide and one of Concepción Chiquirichapa's elected municipal councilmembers.Jorge Rodríguez / Mongabay
To be an Ajq'ij is a great honor for anyone who believes in the ancient traditions. Ajq'ijes are believed to serve as the connection between the spiritual and material worlds. They are meant to seek the truth of all things and constantly study the environment and the signals that nature manifests, like the way the wind blows, the shape of the clouds on a rainy morning or the song of certain birds.
Siete Orejas is important because of the energy that lives there, López said. "As Maya we believe in the 13 energies of the nahuales," he said, referring to the connections, represented by different animals, between the natural and spiritual worlds. According to the Maya, every living thing has a nahual, including mountain peaks like Siete Orejas's.
Mountain summits are special places in Mayan spirituality, because the energy flow there is believed to be stronger than in other places. In spots where they believe the mountain's energy dwells, they make altars to perform rituals. There are 22 on Siete Orejas.
Aguilar parked the truck at the entrance to a camping area inside the park and went off briefly to the registration booth to check in with the municipal tour guides working there. López stretched his legs and grabbed the bag of materials for the ceremony from inside the truck.
During the final 25-minute hike to the top of the mountain, he carried in one hand a black plastic bag with candles of various colors, sugar, a ceremonial incense called pom, white rum, water steeped with flowers called florid water, and resin from the ocote tree (Pinus montezumae). In the other he carried a wooden rod called a Tz'ite that is considered the Ajq'ij's spiritual partner and believed to allow him or her to read energies that human senses cannot detect.
At the top, López asked Aguilar to find him some herbs for the ritual. The altar was a semicircle of lichen-crusted rocks in the bare gravel, decorated with a shoulder-high wooden Catholic cross. Large pines and pinabete (Abies guatemalensis) trees surrounded it.
Marcelino Aguilar, head of Concepción Chiquirichapa's Department of Protected Areas, and Rumualdo López prepare materials for a Maya Mam fire ceremony on Siete Orejas. Jorge Rodríguez / Mongabay
Since the colonization of Guatemala in the 16th century, Mayan spirituality has incorporated some Catholic beliefs and imagery, like the cross. "Catholic believers have a different interpretation of the cross, because it is unbalanced," López said. "For us the sides of the cross are the same length, since they represent our origin, our destiny and the energies that govern our path."
He cleaned the altar of leaves and debris because everything that burns in the fire has a specific meaning. Then, in its center he drew a Mayan cross inside a circle with the sugar: "to sweeten the bitterness and allow us to read in the fire."
Inside the circle, he placed the pom balls, made from the resin of the copal tree (Protium copal). They are one of the most sacred offerings used in rituals, along with the ocote resin. With the florid water he cleaned and blessed the place and those attending the ceremony. After a silent prayer, he started the fire and began the ritual.
Rumualdo López sets a balls of incense called pom inside a Mayan cross of sugar in preparation for a fire ceremony. Jorge Rodríguez / Mongabay
The Favor of the Ajaw
As the fire began to rise, López spoke in his native language, thanking the Ajaw for the blessings it provides through Mother Nature. He walked in circles to symbolize the cycles of time as he asked for the well-being of the other Ajq'ij, of his people and of all living things in the universe.
The Maya understand the dance that fire performs at certain times as a manifestation of the energetic connection that exists during ceremonies. "The nahuales tell us if something is wrong. With the candles, we make requests that are then burned and become part of everything that surrounds us," López said.
For more than 40 minutes, López's prayers and thanks rose with the smoke of the materials he brought. To further purify the act, he poured the rum over the fire, over the rocks of the altar and over the people present at the ceremony.
"This is a day to ask for understanding, for good work and to remove pests from crops," he said, referring to Wukub' Q'anil. At the end of the ceremony, he collected the empty bags and containers and raised a final thanks to the sky, kissing the ground several times.
Ancient Beliefs for Modern Times
The day before the ritual, at his office in Concepción's municipal building, López, who is an elected member of the municipal council in addition to being an Ajq'ij, had lamented how urban growth and the culture of consumerism were taking over life in Concepción, and how this directly affected the natural environment and the spirit of the community.
"Now we see disconnection [between people] and their surroundings. We have seen how the clouds have decreased and the wind no longer blows as it did before," he'd said. "Therefore, we are looking for new sacred places, because we are in a time when humanity needs to be redirected toward the spiritual, above the material."
During the ride back to town from Siete Orejas, Aguilar recognized that the spiritual connection with the mountain and a profound respect toward the natural word, knowledge inherited from their grandparents, had propelled him and his supporters to double their efforts to conserve the local forests.
"We are getting the people to understand that everything is connected, that we have to learn how to coexist with the wildlife that inhabits the woods," he said. "Though there are some who oppose what we do, or simply don't care, we are certain that the majority of the people of Concepción are grateful for the efforts we make to ensure the survival of our mountain."
Pine trees in Kum Kum Wutz park on Siete Orejas. Over the course of four decades, residents of Concepción Chiquirichapa have reforested the area, turning it into a green beacon. Jorge Rodríguez / Mongabay
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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