Changes in natural resource abundance at both the local and global level pose overwhelming challenges for many communities and cultures today. Many of the resources that people rely on to sustain their livelihood are vanishing quickly, due to both human and natural influences. In the short-term, diminishing resources can cause economic instability (or even food insecurity), but in the long-term the consequences can be societally catastrophic. In Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, he provides a five-point framework to understanding societal collapse. One of these is environmental degradation, and another is society’s response to environmental degradation (Diamond). If natural resource extraction continues unchecked, and the response to scarcity is applying more harvest pressure, then the environment that defines these cultures will become degraded to the point that it can no longer sustain these communities. The prevalent farming practices in Belize and the practices of the fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay both demonstrate the connections between nature and culture, and the consequences of overexploitation.
One of the most explicit examples of natural resource depletion we observed in the Chesapeake Bay was with the watermen. Due primarily to human harvest pressures, and secondarily disease, wild oyster populations are at less than 1% of what they were prior to European colonization. Despite this staggering statistic, thousands of watermen still make their living by harvesting them. In this particular case, it would seem there is a feasible solution that benefits both people and the environment: oyster aquaculture. The industry has been slow to take root in the Chesapeake, however, and this is especially true of Maryland. Most of the watermen we’ve talked to view their profession as more than just a job—it’s a way of life. Harvesting “nature’s bounty” on the water is an entirely different experience than farming oysters, but this way of life will soon be lost if extraction continues. We saw additional examples of resource depletion threatening culture on Smith Island. Crabbing used to define the economy of the island, but there are no longer enough crabs to provide adequate economic opportunity to younger generations. It is apparent that diminishing resources (in conjunction with rising sea levels) have set Smith Island on course for failure, and no intervention can preserve their community indefinitely.
While we did not talk directly with a slash and burn farmer in Belize, we did learn a lot about the practice. In an attempt to keep up with the global economy and mimic the farming model so prevalent in the United States, Belizean farmers have moved away from polyculture and towards monoculture. Today, vast citrus farms and banana plantations line the country’s rural roads. This is in contrast to the ancient Maya (from whom many of today’s Belizeans descended), who practiced agriculture that was appropriate for the landscape and tailored crops to natural systems for hundreds of years. This involved some slash and burn farming, but primarily involved establishing terraced fields on steep slopes and raised fields, which created canals/ditches for travel and drainage (Seidel). It was not until severe drought pushed the Maya to pursue unsustainable agricultural practices that the civilization failed to sustain itself. Belizean farmers tend to slash and burn, overwork the soil, and then when it becomes unproductive, they are forced to leave the fields fallow for 10-15 years. Christopher Nesbitt, who practices agroforestry using a permaculture model, describes the practice as “borrowing from the future to maintain the present” (Nesbitt).
We read extensively about exploitation of the forests for timber and nontimber products, and were able to witness some of this exploitation for ourselves in Blue Creek, where nature truly defines culture. Their houses, furniture, food, and more all come from the forest. The thatched roofs of most of the villagers’ houses are made from cahune palms, using 800-1200 fronds per roof. The kernels of the plant’s seed are also harvested and used/sold for oil, and “heart of palm” is a popular dish that requires killing the plant to extract its core. While this is not the best example of overexploitation (mahogany serves this purpose better), it conveys the reliance of the local people on their natural environment. If deforestation continues at the current rates, with forest cover depleted from 74% in 1980 to 60% in 2014, then the stability of their society and culture will be jeopardized (Nesbitt).
While many communities in the Chesapeake Bay region do rely on the natural environment, most people do not directly depend on it to survive or make a living. This is not the case in Belize. Its status as a developing country makes it exceptionally vulnerable to environmental degradation. In the developing world, a model of “growth at any cost” is often internalized in order to gain footing in the global economy. If the country doesn’t begin exercising sustainable farming and resource extraction practices, the consequences could be severe. Moving back to the polyculture practiced by the ancient Maya, or the agroforestry model exemplified at Maya Mountain Research Farm, would provide a sustainable path to growth and success, without compromising culture.