México: Applying traditional ecological knowledge to forest restoration in Lacandon forest


The Lacadon forest is one of the most biologically diverse regions of Central America, located within the UNESCO Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve in Southern Chiapas, México, but it is under imminent threat from human disturbance. The Lacadon Maya people lived in harmony with the forest, farming and preserving it through traditional land use systems. Beginning in the 1970s, globalization and displacement increased the migration of people unfamiliar with traditional Lacadon agriculture into the forest, leading to a gradual loss of the Lacadon traditional agricultural practices, and an uptick in high intensity modern farming practices. Forest cover, soil fertility, species diversity have all decreased as a result, making room for the establishment of a highly invasive fern species. This project aimed to recover Lacadon Maya traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of the forest and scientifically validate traditional agriculture methods, and encourage the adoption of traditional methods to restore the Lacadon Forest and eradicate the invasive Bracken fern, Pteridium aquilinium.

Quick Facts

Geographic Region:
Latin America

Country or Territory:

Tropical Forest

Tropical Forest - Moist Broadleaf

Project Lead:
Samuel Levy-Tacher

Organization Type:
University / Academic Institution

Project Partners:
Don Manuel Castellanos Chankin (local Lacandon expert)

Project Stage:
Post-Implementation Maintenance

Start Date:

End Date:

Primary Causes of Degradation

Agriculture & Livestock, Deforestation, Fragmentation, Invasive Species (native or non-native pests, pathogens or plants)

Degradation Description

Globalization and displacement due to social and/or economic circumstances. has led to increased migration of people into the Lacadon forest area beginning in the 1970s. The influx of people unfamiliar with traditional Lacadon practices has intensified land use pressure and introduced large scale agriculture and cattle grazing to the area. The result has been forest degradation and a loss of traditional land use practices. Cattle grazing is one of the main causes of degradation in Latin America especially in the Mayan region according to the United Nations FAO ( Video Raices Mayas, 2010). Intensified land and loss of traditional practices has led to fragmentation, loss of ecosystem productivity due to soil compaction and loss of soil fertility, alterations to key ecological processes such as natural succession and regeneration, and reduced species diversity. 

The loss of forest cover and increased in cleared agricultural fields encouraged the spread of invasive Bracken fern, Pteridium aquilinium, which has halted natural forest succession. The fern thrives in open areas and shades out native plants with its dense vegetation and litter, prevents seedling establishment, and depletes the soil seed bank.

Defining the Reference Ecosystem

The reference ecosystem is based on diverse sources of information (e.g. multiple extant reference sites, field indicators, historical records, predictive data).

Reference Ecosystem Description

The reference ecosystem for the Lacadon forest is defined by its relationship with the Lacadon people directing and influencing the composition and succession of the forest. The forest was huge with small patches reserved for agriculture, allowed to fallow for long periods of time. The tree composition favored colonizer species adapted to and favored by rapid natural succession and intensive use of small areas. The Lacadon describe two main types of natural vegetation: Monte alto forest and chaparral forest. Monte alto forest is dominant, growing in high perennial rainforest. Chaparral is characterized by smaller vegetation which grows in 5 hectare plots within Monte alto forest in areas prone to flooding near river and streams, and often in soil with high organic content. 

The reference ecosystem was selected based on interviews with remaining Lacadon Maya farmers who continue to practice traditional agriculture, and from an image of the forest composition and area created from cultural studies of the area during Mayan rule. However, much remains unknown about the state of the forest prior to Spanish colonization, and the economic needs of the recent migrants into the area and the pressures of globalization on local communities must be taken into account. 

The benchmarks used to evaluate restoration success are measures of improved species diversity in the area, recovery of native trees over degraded areas, and natural succession ability and rate. The restored system will have rapid natural succession of abandoned agricultural fields by native colonizers, high biodiversity, fertile aerated soil, and buffer zones of forest surrounding roads, rivers, villages, and fields. Cattle pastures will have approximately 50 native trees planted per hectare. 

Project Goals

The projects primary goals were to recover and document traditional ecological knowledge of the Lacadon forest and fuse it with Western science to inform scientific experiments and restoration practices for the forest. The project aimed to “convert this rich source of TEK into scientifically validated tools for ecological restoration” (Douterlungne et al., 2010). Restoration goals included eliminating the invasive Bracken fern and regenerating abandoned agricultural lands. The project hoped to arm local farmers and community members with these tools and TEK so they could benefit from ecological restoration efforts. 



Lacadon Maya Farmers 

Local Students – High school students and teachers from agricultural schools were involved in seedling production. Their involvement complied with their social service and pre-professional practice requirements. A total of 250 students and four teachers have been trained thus far in nursery management. El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) provides the students and teachers a certificate of training and they are provided an economic incentive. 


How this project eliminated existing threats to the ecosystem:
Elimination of the invasive Bracken fern: the Lacadon Maya use the native tree Balsa (Ochroma pyramidale) to promote accelerated natural succession towards mature tropical forest. The tree grows quickly and shades previously cleared areas, dissuading fern propagation. The Lacadon Maya plant Balsa using the traditional Balsa seed broadcasting method. A study conducted by Douterlungne et al., 2010 found this method to be both highly effective for combating the Bracken fern and a low-resource/cost efficient solution.

How this project achieved a desirable species composition:
Twenty multi-purpose native tree species that seem highly promising and complementary are being used in plots established in abandoned pasture, bracken fields, low fallow and corn fields.

How this project reinstated structural diversity (e.g. strata, faunal food webs, spatial habitat diversity):
Farmers with grass pastures planted 50 native trees per hectare of pasture and maintain tolches around their property.

How this project recovered ecosystem functionality (e.g. nutrient cycling, plant-animal interactions, normal stressors):
The natural succession rates of abandoned agricultural plots subjected to a variety of treatments (slash and burn vs. traditional methods of controlled burns) was tested.

How this project reestablished external exchanges with the surrounding landscape (e.g. migration, gene flow, hydrology):
In 2005, a large-scale project was undertaken in the community of Nueva Palestina, Lacandon rainforest. Currently, 320 ha of degraded land are under rehabilitation where actions were undertaken to rehabilitate degraded areas on a large scale. Mapping and characterization are being used in addition to scientifically validated TEK based interventions, such as the use of tolches and fundo legal, to promote landscape-level connectivity.

Activities were undertaken to address any socio-economic aspects of the project:
The recovery and implementation of the agricultural practices based on the traditional ecological knowledge of the Lacadon Maya people allows local farmers to continue making a living from agriculture while preserving and working with the native forest system. Local farmers and the local community were directly involved in this project of recovering knowledge and incentivizing sustainable practices.

Ecological Outcomes Achieved

Achieve a desirable species composition:
The re-establishment of native trees is re-introducing the appropriate native tree composition to the forest.

Reinstate structural diversity:
The use of tolches and fundo legal allow the forest to grown around towns and agricultural lands, creating structural diversity in the forest. Farmers who graze cattle on large swaths of grass pasture were able to retain structural diversity by just planting 50 native trees per hectare in their pastures.

Recover ecosystem functionality:
The re-establishment of native trees showing promise for encouraging natural succession of abandoned land plots. The traditional controlled burn and long fallow period with planting of native tree species encouraged high natural succession rates.

Reestablish external exchanges with the surrounding landscape:
The use of tolches and fundo legal promote landscape-level connectivity.

Socio-Economic & Community Outcomes Achieved

Economic vitality and local livelihoods:
The project in Nueva Palestine involves 100 Tzeltal farmers. Each farmer owns 2 ha on average, with an economic benefit of US$365/ha/ year. Several government institutions fund rehabilitation costs. The farmers participating in the project have come to rely on these rehabilitation fees as an important source of income. Many farmers also keep bees in the forest surrounding the village or the fundo legal. The forest keeps the beehives safe and provides pollen sources for the bees. Farmers can continue farming or raising cattle while implementing sustainable traditional methods. The farmers who planted native trees in their pastures were able to also use the trees for firewood, and then re-plant more trees.

Provision of basic necessities such as food, water, timber, fiber, fuel, etc.:
The Lacadon forest has always been an important source of food, medicine, and fuelwood for the Lacadon people, particularly during the long fallow periods in the fields. Rehabilitating the forest and restoring soil fertility in the region ensures continued agricultural success and economic vitality for the community.

Cultural dimensions such as recreational, aesthetic and/or spiritual:
The Lacadon forest plays an important role in the spirituality of the Lacadon people. The tree is a sacred symbol n Mayan cosmogony.

Regulation of climate, floods, disease, erosion, water quality, etc.:
The tree stands around the village centers and roads mantan cool temperature in the village and protect from the damage caused by annual hurricanes specifically protecting beehives farmers keep. The leaf litter from the forest specifically from Balsa trees protects the soil from eroding quickly. Maintaining trees along the rivers prevents flooding and preserves water quality.

Key Lessons Learned

  • Western science needs to better recognize and acknowledge the value of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), particularly as it can be utilized in ecological restoration.  TEK specifically pays an important role in predicting and and widely replicating traditional restoration approaches. 
  • Researchers  must consult and involve traditional farmers as experts in the design and implementation of their research. TEK needs to expand to be understood and utilized in scientific experimentation, rather than just descriptive studies. 
  • Restoration strategies which incorporate TEK are more likely to be adopted by local people. Studies should be pursued which validate TEK and better inform the design of such restoration strategies. 
  • Forestry expert Francisco Román states in Raices Mayas, a 2011 film about traditional land management in the Lacandon forest: ‘I confess that before getting involved with these farmers I thought that the word ‘traditional’ meant a certain orthodoxy—old fashioned ways that rarely change though adaptable to contemporary situations. But now I see that these traditional farmers really have an open and innovative spirit. They are, in fact, the vanguard.’22 Indeed,  traditional ecological techniques ‘may be rooted in the distant past but turn out to be quite new to our eyes.’ 

Long-Term Management

In 2010 the rehabilitation process areas were monitored in order to evaluate the survival and growth of trees planted in different conditions. From this information, intervention strategies were improved (made more efficient) for the use of species, costs and benefits.

Other Resources

There have been multiple peer-reviewed publications put forth over the past two decades which focus on various aspects of the effect of recovering and implementing TEK in the Lacadon forest. 

  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0925857416301513
  2. Douterlungne et al., 2010 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1526-100X.2008.00459.x
  3. Dañobeytia et al. 2007. Establishment of six native tree species in a degraded pasture in the Lacandona Forest, Chiapas, Mexico. Ecol. apl. v.6 n.1-2 Lima http://www.scielo.org.pe/scielo.php?pid=S1726-22162007000100001&script=sci_arttext
  4. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232982264_Successional_Pathways_Derived_from_Different_Vegetation_Use_Patterns_by_Lacandon_Mayan_Indians
  5. https://link-springer-com/content/pdf/10.1007/s10457-005-6073-2.pdf
  6. https://www-sciencedirect-com/science/article/abs/pii/S0925857405002338
  7. https://www-sciencedirect-com/science/article/pii/S0167880906000077

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