The Earth is Not Ours, We Merely Borrow it From Our Children: Lessons from the Maya Q’eqchi

Saul Paau Maaz

The ancient Mayans—and their indigenous descendants in Guatemala—saw the profound interconnectedness of human reproduction and stewardship of natural resources. Whether cultivating a field or bringing a new life into the world, traditional Mayans practiced respectful restraint. But those old ways are being destroyed, and new solutions are needed.

This fall, world population will reach 7 billion people at a time of accelerated environmental disruption. This article is part of a series commissioned by Rewire with Laurie Mazur as guest editor. The series examines population and environmental change from various perspectives and explores the policies and actions needed to both avoid and mitigate the inevitable impacts of these changes.

Here, Saúl Paau Maaz explains how his people, the ancient Mayans—and their indigenous descendants in Guatemala—saw the profound interconnectedness of human reproduction and stewardship of natural resources, and practiced respectful restraint. But traditional ways are being destroyed, and new solutions are needed.

All of the articles in this series, Seven Billion People, can be found here.

Growing up in the deep, lush jungle of Petén, under an endless green canopy, I learned that human life and the natural world are inseparable. My parents and grandparents taught me that people are just one element of Mother Nature; her protection and care is our responsibility.

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For generations, my people, the Maya Q’eqchi’, have inhabited the Petén, which has always been sacred for its forests, which shelter a diverse array of animals and plants. The wealth of those forests extends well beyond Guatemala’s borders: in fact, researchers describe them as the Americas’ “third lung” because of their oxygen production.

But today, my homeland is in trouble. Its biological wealth is threatened by drug farms, road building, cattle ranching, forest fires, and rapid population growth. Multinational companies are destroying the forests, as are sprawling human settlements. The jungle where I was born is now a disaster area, plundered and exploited.  Every year, 100 to 150 square miles of forest are lost. In less than three and a half decades, Petén’s forest cover has shrunk from 90 percent to 50 percent of the land mass.

It Hasn’t Always Been this Way

Traditional Mayan wisdom taught us to care for the environment and to limit human numbers and impact. Before building a house, planting a crop, or bringing new life into the world—indeed, before making any changes to nature—we must first ask permission from the creator and shaper of the universe, and find the appropriate nawal—the cosmic, natural energies that each of the 20 days in the Mayan calendar represents.

Nawales are essential to Mayan cosmogony, our spiritual narrative.  Each person is born with a nawal that determines their temperament, their role in society, and even their daily actions.  The Mayan people interpret the nawales’ communication in all things, including the timing of dreams, the presence of certain animals, movements of air or planets, bird songs, and other sounds. For these reasons, the Mayan people maintain a great respect for nature.      

For our elders, respect for nature meant careful stewardship of the environment. When I was a child, my parents taught me how to grow crops and protect the forest. The Maya Q’eqchi’ people practiced a sophisticated form of field rotation. They also took care to walk 30 minutes or more outside of their community to plant their crops. This protected the forest that sheltered our homes, and ensured a steady supply of firewood. It also preserved the forest animals and the sacred mountains.

The Maya Q’eqchi’ also practiced a traditional form of family planning, based on the phases of the moon.  The seven-day period which starts on the first day of a woman’s menstruation was understood as a time when sexual relations are permitted. After those seven days, there is a fertile period which lasts from the eighth day until the 19th day.  From 19th day until the next menstruation, partners can have sexual relations with little risk of becoming pregnant.  Because of this traditional wisdom, there are elders today who have only had three or four children during their entire reproductive life, though they have never used any western contraception.

Sex is sacred to indigenous people; sexual activity should not be had every day. The right nawal, or the right day for fertilization, has to be considered carefully by both the mother and father. If the series of fertile days are not in harmony with the energies for fertilization, birth, and destiny of a new life, sexual relations should not take place.

Traditional Wisdom Forgotten

In recent decades, however, the traditional Mayan wisdom about family planning and environmental stewardship has largely been forgotten. Colonization, cultural and linguistic genocide, the forces of capitalism, and the western thinking that now pervades our people have all weakened the traditional knowledge of the indigenous people.

The decline of traditional knowledge has taken a toll on the environment, and on reproductive health.  Indigenous Guatemalan women have, on average, eight children, often with no proper medical attention before, during, or after each birth. High fertility can mean poor health and lower life expectancy for both mothers and children.

And high fertility, combined with rapid industrialization and internal migration, means rapid population growth. In my homeland of Petén, the population has grown from 24,000 to 500,000 in just four decades, and is expected to reach 650,000 this year.

As our numbers have grown, our way of life has become impoverished—culturally and economically. The Maya Q’eqchi’ have suffered a loss of identity and loss of respect for the forest and Mother Nature.  Two thirds of our people live in extreme poverty, existing on only two dollars a day; one fifth live on less than one dollar a day.  Nearly half of children between the ages of one and five years old are chronically malnourished, a fact that has repercussions for their physical and intellectual growth. Their intellectual growth is similarly stunted: There is little access to formal education.

We face an uncertain future. The rainy seasons have profoundly shifted, which has led to increasing hunger and declining economic conditions. The floods are powerful, unexpected, and uncontrollable, which profoundly affects the well-being of our communities.

Solutions Are Both Modern and Traditional

Some of the answers to these new problems come from the modern world: education, and, in particular, sexual and reproductive health education and services. For example, education for woman and girls is key.  Fundación Propetèn (the Pro-Petén Foundation) found that illiterate women have an average of nine children.  In comparison, women with three to six years of education have an average of five children; women who have completed 16 years of education have an average of three; and women who have completed 18 years of education or a college degree have two children on average.  In addition to lower fertility, education has been shown to have a positive impact on women’s social, economic, and cultural life. This is why we advocate access to education for all.

Young people also need accurate information about sexuality and reproductive health.  As a community health worker, I have lobbied at a regional level to incorporate and promote sexual and reproductive health education in schools for children and young people between the ages of 12 to 18. I have also worked to promote youth organizations and training programs on community leadership, HIV, migration, and population and environment at the Fundación de Universidad Pública (Public University Foundation) in my village. Service delivery is also crucial: for the last nine years, I have trained rural health workers and traditional midwives to provide quality reproductive health services, including modern methods of family planning.

Other answers come from traditional wisdom. The Council of Mayan Elders is working to promote a return to the agricultural practices of our ancestors and to preserve ancient knowledge of natural medicine and human reproduction in keeping with nature and the earth.

Fundamentally, we can try to live by this native saying: “The Earth is not ours; we merely borrow it from our sons, daughters and grandchildren.” Caring for the Earth is our responsibility if we want a better, fairer world and thus, a better life.


Of Rights and Resilience: Why Women’s Rights are Key to Thriving in the Age of the “Black Swan”

Laurie Mazur

Black Swan events are proliferating for many reasons—notably climate change and the growing scale and interconnectedness of the human enterprise. World population doubled in the last half-century to just under seven billion people, so there are simply more people living in harm’s way, on geologic faults and along vulnerable coastlines. In effect, we have re-engineered the planet and ushered in a new era of radical instability. Advancing and securing women's rights are a key aspect of the solution to these problems.

This fall, world population will reach 7 billion people at a time of accelerated environmental disruption. This article is the first in a multi-part series commissioned by Rewire to examine the causes and consequences of population and environmental change from various perspectives and the policies and actions that need to be put in place to both avoid and mitigate the inevitable impacts of these changes.

Welcome to the age of the Black Swan.

The tornado that nearly leveled the city of Joplin, Missouri in May was a Black Swan; so was the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan in March; and the “hundred-year floods” that now take place every couple of years in the American Midwest.

A Black Swan is a low-probability, high-impact event that tears at the very fabric of civilization. And they are becoming more common: weather-related disasters spiked in 2010, killing nearly 300,000 people and costing $130 billion.

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Black Swan events are proliferating for many reasons—notably climate change and the growing scale and interconnectedness of the human enterprise.  World population doubled in the last half-century to just under seven billion people, so there are simply more people living in harm’s way, on geologic faults and along vulnerable coastlines. As the human enterprise has grown, we have reshaped natural systems to meet human needs, weakening resilience of ecosystems, and by extension our own. In effect, we have re-engineered the planet and ushered in a new era of radical instability.

At the same time, the world’s people are increasingly linked by systems of staggering complexity and size: think of electrical grids and financial markets. What were once local disasters now reverberate across the globe.

So what does this have to do with women’s rights, you may ask? A lot, as it turns out. The great challenge of the 21st century is to build societies that can cope with the flock of Black Swans that are headed our way.  Advancing and securing women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, is central to meeting that challenge.

The New World, and How We Got Here

The age of the Black Swan marks a sharp turn on the long path of human history. It is hard to overstate how swiftly and profoundly we have transformed the way we live. Imagine that all of humanity’s existence was compressed into a 24-hour day, with each hour representing 100,000 years. Our humanoid ancestors first appeared at midnight, then spent the night and most of the following day hunting and gathering in small, mobile bands. At 11:56 pm, we invented agriculture. In the last seconds before the end of the day came the industrial revolution, the Pill, and The Jersey Shore.

Also in the last seconds before midnight, our numbers increased sevenfold, and—in the blink of an eye—we former hunter-gatherers had colonized every corner of the planet. Just think: it took from the beginning of human history until 1800 for our numbers to reach one billion. Now, just over 200 years later, there are nearly 7 billion of us. And we will likely reach 8 billion by 2025.

In many ways, the history of our species is an incredible success story. We’ve vanquished diseases, produced staggering quantities of food, and used our ingenuity to circumvent every drudgery and inconvenience. Some of us, at least, live in luxury that could scarcely have been imagined a few generations ago.

I got to thinking how far and how quickly we’ve come when I went looking for information about my maternal grandmother. I found her (on the web) in the painstakingly handwritten records of the 1910 census. There she was as an eight year-old girl, living in an apartment in Baltimore with her grandparents, mother, a couple of siblings, and some random boarders taken in to help pay the bills.

Consider her environmental footprint. Her family didn’t have a car, or electricity, or even indoor plumbing—chamber pots and an outdoor privy sufficed. She ate organically grown, local produce (there wasn’t any other kind; pesticides and synthetic fertilizer weren’t yet widely used). Meat was a luxury. No plastics. No airplanes. No petrochemicals.

Believe me, I don’t idealize the past (I am very, very fond of indoor plumbing). But I am struck by how much our family’s environmental impact has grown in the space of two generations. My family of four lives in a house twice the size of the apartment my grandmother shared with seven others. Between my ailing Subaru, my central air conditioning, and the occasional airplane flight, I produce well over 20 tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide each year. My grandmother, burning a few lumps of coal for heat in the winter, likely produced a tenth as much.

Moreover, my out-sized consumption habits are shared by a much larger number of people. When my grandmother was a kid, there were 92 million Americans, today there are 308 million. Globally, our numbers grew from 1.75 billion to nearly 7 billion in that time. While most of the world’s people do not consume resources as rapaciously as Americans (more on that later), it is safe to say that both human numbers and consumption have skyrocketed in the space of a few generations.

The Dark Side

Which gets me to the dark side of the human success story. In our brief stint of planetary dominion, we have done a vast amount of damage. We have replaced the riotous diversity of nature with uniform monocultures. We’ve changed the chemistry of earth and sky—increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 40 percent, and acidifying the oceans. We’ve cut down nearly half of the planet’s forests, and destroyed two-thirds of its coral reefs and mangroves. We have brought about the greatest mass extinction of plant and animal life in our history; every year, some 30,000 species become extinct (about three per hour).

Nature is inherently resilient; ecosystems regenerate after disturbances like hurricanes and wildfires. But we have weakened nature’s ability to bounce back by removing key species, by harvesting resources more rapidly than they can renew themselves, and by loading ecosystems with more wastes than they can absorb.

In so doing, we’ve weakened our own resilience. Healthy ecosystems are the foundation of human well-being; they provide a range of essential goods and services to humankind, such as food and freshwater, pollination, and protection from storms. As a result of our chipping away at that foundation, a recent global survey found that the “the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”

And, as we have weakened human and natural resilience, we have created new threats. Human-induced climate change has ushered in an unknowable future of intense storms, floods, and droughts. As NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen puts it, “Ten thousand years of good weather is over.” Cue the Black Swans.

Of course, not all humans are equally culpable for this state of affairs. And that illuminates the other dark aspect of our species’ success: staggering inequity. The unprecedented affluence that some humans now enjoy has not been evenly shared; some 40 percent of the world’s people—2.6 billion—still live on less than $2 per day.

Most of the world’s poor have environmental footprints that resemble my grandmother’s more than my own. The average citizen of Tanzania, for example, emits about a tenth of a ton of CO2 per year—about what the average American puts out every 28 hours. But, tragically, it is the poor—those who contributed least to the sacking of the planet—who are most vulnerable to the consequences of environmental decline.

So, to recap: humans have had a good long run, but in the process of establishing dominion over the Earth, we’ve weakened the support systems that have enabled us to thrive thus far. We have altered our planet in fundamental ways, ushering in the age of the Black Swan—a period of instability and suffering—with the poor and vulnerable at greatest risk.

This is, admittedly, a bleak picture. The good news is that it is possible to build more sustainable and resilient societies, and to limit damage to the natural systems that we depend upon. And that is where women’s rights—including reproductive rights—come in.

Sustainability and Scale

Environmental sustainability is, in part, about how a society uses resources. On the simplest level, if resource use is unsustainable, you can’t keep doing it. If you take fish from the ocean faster than the fish can reproduce, you run out of fish. (Of course, affluent countries and people typically get around this problem by helping themselves to other people’s fish.)

But collectively, humans are using resources more quickly than they can regenerate: two thirds of the planet’s ecosystems—including fisheries and fresh water—are now being used in ways that simply cannot be sustained.

Sustainability is a function of the scale of the human enterprise; of the way we consume resources, on one hand, and of the number of consumers on the other. On a finite planet, neither human numbers nor human appetites can grow forever.

For those of us who live in the United States and other countries that devour a disproportionate share of the planet’s resources, reducing consumption is the top priority.  It can be done, with a wholesale shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, greater efficiency, cities and towns built around reliable public transportation, and food systems that encourage us to eat lower on the food chain. Fundamentally, we need to reorient our economy from the production and consumption of goods of dubious value to a new emphasis on meeting human needs.

UN Population projections, High (red), Medium (yellow) and Low (green).

And, as human numbers approach 7 billion, people everywhere need to think about where we go from here.

The United Nations recently published new population projections, which envision a range of possibilities for the 21st century. If fertility rates stay where they are today, we’d pass 26 billion by the end of this century. But that’s not likely: thanks to wider availability of contraception, urbanization, and other factors, fertility rates have fallen steadily in recent decades, from an average of 5 children per woman in 1950 to just 2.5 today. The question is how quickly, and how steeply, they will continue to fall.

In the UN’s low projection, fertility dips to 1.7 children per woman and human numbers peak at 8 billion by mid-century, then decline to 6 billion by 2100. By contrast, the medium and high projections envision slower declines in fertility—and continued growth for the foreseeable future. The medium projection would reach 10 billion by 2100; the high projection, nearly 16 billion.

I don’t believe there is an optimal size for the human population; greater equity and more efficient use of resources would greatly extend the planet’s “carrying capacity.” But, when you consider the resource challenges of the 21st century, and the unpredictable new era we have entered, 8 billion looks more sustainable than 16 billion.

Take water, for example. While there is no global shortage of freshwater, a growing number of regions are chronically parched. And many of those regions—including parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—are also where population is growing most rapidly. The World Bank has identified 45 “water-poor” countries where shortages are especially acute. Those countries have an average fertility rate of 4.8 children per woman—nearly twice the world average. And their populations are expected to double by 2050.

Slower population growth is not a panacea for the world’s water problems. Much can be done to develop better technology and better policies on water use. But slower growth and smaller population numbers could help ease pressure on scarce resources. That’s true for countries dealing with the deadly combination of poverty and water scarcity—and it’s true for the world as a whole.

Population and Women’s Rights

The difference between 8 billion and 16 billion is all about women’s rights. Fertility rates have fallen in most of the world’s countries, but they remain high where women’s status is low.

Less than one-fifth of the world’s countries will account for nearly all of the world’s population growth this century. Not coincidentally, those countries—the least developed nations in sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, and elsewhere—are also where girls are less likely to attend school, where child marriage is common, and where women lack the means and the power to make their own decisions about childbearing.

That can change. Nations can raise women’s status by educating girls, by enforcing laws that prohibit child marriage and sexual violence, and by improving women’s access to credit, land, jobs, and training. Where women enjoy these fundamental rights, smaller (and healthier) families become the norm.

At the same time, women must have the means to make choices: family planning and other reproductive health services. Around the world, some 215 million want to avoid pregnancy, but aren’t using effective methods of contraception. Fulfilling that “unmet need” for family planning is vital to ensuring women’s reproductive rights, and to slowing population growth. In this way, the goals of the sexual and reproductive health and rights movement are deeply aligned with the imperatives of environmental sustainability.

A Three-Legged Stool

Achieving a sustainable balance among people, consumption, and resources is necessary and important. But it is not sufficient.

We have entered an era of unpredictable, wrenching, change. Consider the climate: even if we ceased emitting greenhouse gases today, the legacy of past emissions guarantees a future of warming temperatures, stronger storms, and rising seas.

To thrive in the face of these changes, our societies must be resilient—they must be able to absorb disturbance while continuing to function. What makes a society resilient? There is a substantial—and growing—literature on this subject; a few points bear repeating here.

Some characterize resilience as a three legged stool: the “legs” of the stool include a nation’s environmental capacity—the health of its ecosystems; its human and civic resources; and its economic capacity, or wealth.

Women have an important role to play in bolstering each leg of resilience. First, environmental capacity: in much of the developing world, women are primary caretakers of natural resources such as forests and freshwater. Empowering women with property rights and decision-making authority can result in better stewardship of those ecosystems. That’s what happened in Gujarat, India: when women were well-represented on community forest management committees, forest conditions improved dramatically.

Second, human resources. Women’s power, knowledge, and creativity are vital—but underutilized—human resources. Girls and women are often held back; they get less food, less medical care, less formal education, and fewer opportunities than their male counterparts. Investing in girls and women yields enormous benefits. For example, girls’ education is associated with a vast range of positive outcomes, from higher crop yields to lower rates of HIV and better nutrition.

Finally, economic capacity: A growing body of research shows that ensuring economic opportunity for women may be the best way to end world poverty. This is not only because women are at a greater risk of being poor, but also because women in poor countries are more likely to spend their income on food, education, and health care for their children—giving families a lasting path out of poverty.

The growing risk of Black Swan events lends urgency to improving women’s status, because women are among the most vulnerable in times of crisis. In the 2004 South Asian tsunami, for example, three times as many women died as did men. Why? In part because of rigid gender roles; not only did women shoulder the burden of saving children and the elderly, their traditional clothing made it difficult to move quickly, and—unlike their brothers—they had not been taught to swim. Addressing women’s vulnerabilities is a top priority for any effort to build resilience.

Of Rights and Resilience

We can’t know what the age of the Black Swan has in store for us. We have never been here before; the environmental and social challenges we face today are utterly without precedent. But change—sweeping and transformative—is a constant in natural and human history. We can embrace change and prepare for it by building sustainable, resilient societies.

To do so, we need to ramp up our efforts to ensure women’s rights. In an age of uncertainty, no nation can afford to squander half of its human capital. And, where women enjoy equal rights, societies are healthier, more prosperous, and less vulnerable.

At the same time, we need to find a sustainable balance among people, consumption, and resources. That means intentionally downsizing the scale and impact of the human enterprise, by reducing wasteful consumption and by choosing a slower growth path for human numbers. Here, too, women’s rights—especially reproductive rights—are key.

When I think about the paths our numbers could take, I am again reminded of my grandmother. On the 1910 census where I found her name, there were two columns that no longer appear on census forms: “number of children born” and “number now living.” Often, there was a large gap between the two. My grandmother’s grandmother had ten children; five survived. Her mother had six kids; just three were alive in 1910.

Those numbers are a reminder of the brutal way in which human population was held in check throughout most of our history: high fertility was balanced by high mortality. Our numbers soared with the advent of sanitation and vaccines, because more children survived to adulthood. When mortality rates fell, fertility rates often followed, and a new equilibrium was achieved. But that equilibrium remains elusive in many parts of the world, where women still lack the means and the power to make their own decisions about childbearing.

The numbers remind us, also, that the sustainable, resilient world we seek is in the future, not in the past. We can’t go back, nor would we want to. We can, however, go forward—by curbing our environmental impact, by advancing the rights of women, and by unleashing the intelligence and creativity of every one of the planet’s 7 billion citizens.