Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Film shows Mayan culture, science is key for environmental issues

Mayan science, knowledge of environment may hold answer to contemporary Western agricultural issues
Katie Cooney

Maya Land: Listening to the Bees” is an award-winning documentary recently directed by University of Wisconsin Department of Spanish and Portuguese professor Katarzyna Olga Beilin. The film illustrates the profound connection Indigenous people in the Americas have with their land and the answers their knowledge holds for solving the issues of colonization and widespread degenerative agricultural practices.

Beilin said she began this project when she became interested in the relationship between humans and non-humans, like animals, plants and natural forces.

Beilin wanted to investigate the extent to which the relationship between humans and non-human beings becomes a part of human culture. To study interspecies dynamics, Beilin said she began working with Indigenous people to investigate the way they connect with the ecosystem.


Beilin said the film’s goal is to make the audience question what the world would be like if the bees were prioritized over human economic interests. Beilin theorizes supporting the bee population would lead to more crops, healthier people and thriving ecosystems.

Indigenous people have a completely different set of technology than Western civilization, Beilin said. They also share a different environmental ideology — while Western civilization views the environment as a resource to achieve higher gross domestic product and industry expansion, Indigenous cultures view the environment as a relative.

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While working on the Maya Bees project in Mexico, Beilin said she learned about the issues of technological expansion that threaten Indigenous Mayan people. Contemporary methodologies like genetically modified organism farming, industry expansion, mass production, urban housing and tourism place high demand on land and natural resources while also creating a lot of waste, Beilin said.

As these issues have expanded since the introduction of colonization, Beilin said Mayan people have increasingly lost their ancestral land, which begins to restrict their way of life.

In Yucatan, there has been major resistance against genetically modified agriculture because of its destruction of the forest ecosystem and bee population, Beilin said. As a result, scientists, activists and Mayan communities formed an alliance.

In the beginning, Beilin said it wasn’t a film project but rather an article that led to interviewing and filming locals and experts. After exposure to the Mayan culture, science and picturesque land, Beilin decided to capture more footage to make a documentary about their unique connection with the land.

“[It was] a land of colors and very beautiful,” Beilin said.

The project was not without obstacles — Beilin said there was a struggle to find funding for the project and the pandemic prevented them from getting the footage they needed.

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One of the most interesting things Beilin said she encountered was the universal agreement between environmentalists and scholars that the Indigenous vision is the “right one.” The quality of today’s land is thanks to the interaction between the Indigenous people and the environment.

Traditional Mayan technology — which comes from an intricate knowledge of their ecosystem and co-existing with it — is just as modern and sophisticated as Western society’s technology, Beilin said.

The Mayans practiced a tradition called Milpa polyculture, which Beilin said enables them to grow 20 different crops simultaneously, unlike Western agriculture which grows one crop at a time.

The Mayans studied crop placement in the environment, crop compatibility with others and the cyclical rotations of crops to maintain the health of the land. For instance, a patch of crops can be grown together or separate in one area, sowed and reaped at the correct season, Beilin said.

UW professor of Organic and Sustainable Cropping Systems Erin Silva researches community farming and partnerships and sees the benefits of learning from the Mayan practice of polyculture. Monoculture systems have profound ecological consequences and industry demands efficiency.

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“The reason we farm the way we do today is because of the demand for efficiency,” Silva said.

For example, Madison lakes have been impacted by monoculture, which increases nitrate levels leading to large algae blooms and poor water quality, Silva said. Because of these effects, it is imperative scientists look at different ways to produce food.

Developing an agricultural system that mimics the natural environment will introduce a diverse assembly of crops, which has been shown to support water quality, biodiversity, pollination and the natural environment, Silva said.

Silva said these practices help mitigate the consequences of monoculture and promote crop adaptation to the climate while also ensuring food security for the community.

Intercropping systems, like the Mayan Milpa practices, are critical to the diversity of crops but also support aspects of ecology like soil quality and microbial environment, Silva said.

The diversity of plants can interact with each other and promote the proliferation of healthy compounds into the soil, which leads to more nutritious soil and plant resilience against disease, Silva said.

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These practices are very sophisticated and require a deep understanding of changes and interactions between environmental factors. Beilin said Indigenous people have inhabited the same land for thousands of years, so their technology is advanced in many different ways.

For example, Indigenous people designed intricate science and technology around symbiosis, supporting a forest that yields resources without destroying the ecosystem. Researchers now study these practices to solve modern issues like climate change.

Mayan land, which had been thoughtfully constructed for 3,000 years through knowledge of organisms, ecosystems and climate, was harmed and appropriated by 200 years of colonization. But, Beilin said, learning to understand these interactions and changes can allow the land to flourish again.

Mayan knowledge transcends academic disciplines. Beilin said it’s unknown whether Mayan ecological knowledge is considered a science, a culture or perhaps something more.

Beilin said the film should encourage viewers to reflect on their relationship with the environment and view themselves as part of the ecosystem instead of apart from it — much like how the Maya view their people.

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In agreement, Silva said many Indigenous cultures and countries with less colonial history have stronger ties to their food and with cultures and traditions centered around them. The Indigenous people of North America have a strong bond with their food and are extremely productive in food production and feeding their community.

Beilin said integrating humanities with technology and science could help to solve difficult problems that require more than one discipline to solve, approaching problems with people from other disciplines like economics, history and Indigenous studies.

This can be achieved by teamwork and transdisciplinary education for students to encourage them to think about problems through multi-disciplinary perspectives, Beilin said.

To fulfill this need, Beilin said she is designing a lecture course about cultures of the Americas that will build on Indigenous knowledge, cultures and tools to direct future problem-solving across environmental, spiritual and psychological crises.

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