How does the cyclic nature of the milpa forest garden play out on the Maya forest landscape? Our model reveals that, with recurring and continual investments, the cycle resiliently responds to environmental and human changes. El Pilar provides our salient example: The high residential density and population demonstrate the success of the milpa forest garden cycle. Annual fields produce ever-present wind-pollinated forbs. In our model, the proportion of land under cultivation varies based on maize yields. Whether the yields are low or high, there is always a substantial forest cover.
How can we judge the sustainability of traditional Maya farming strategies? In the Eurocentric view, shifting landscape use is related to low-density, dispersed populations (see Boserup 1965, 1981; Van Vliet et al. 2013). But the Maya populations were undoubtedly large and dense. How did their landscape support the growth and longevity of their civilization? They relied on an intensive hand-cultivation system. We have demonstrated that the milpa forest garden cycle is just that: an intensive perennial agricultural system that evolves with investments of labor at every stage in the cycle. The Maya
manage the landscape from field to forest and back again. Their cultivation of the biological capital of landscape as an asset resolves more than the immediate subsistence requirements of the family; it creates a surplus that supports the hierarchical elite administration. Within the ecosystem, the traditional milpa cycle not only manages biodiversity but also promotes water conservation, air quality, and soil fertility to avert environmental harm and respond to change. Could this intensive cultivation system support the dense populations estimated for the ancient Maya? To investigate this question we focus, as an example, on the settlement around the major center of El Pilar north of the Belize River, where significant archaeological data provide a detailed means of examining land use and population (Ford 1985, 1990, 1991a, 1992, 2004; Ford and Fedick 1992).