The sacred and the mundane
Over the course of research from 2008-2010 in the Kaqchikel Maya community of Ch’aqa’ Ya’, Guatemala, in which I documented the sacred sites utilized by residents who practice costumbre, or indigenous Maya spirituality, I began to find links between concepts fundamental to this belief system and local strategies of ecological management. The report below details subsequent research (2011-2016) into local human interaction with the environment as mediated through a sacred relationship with the landscape. In the pages that follow I show how local sacred sites are vital to human-ecological interaction in Ch’aqa’ Ya’ as well as highlight how beliefs essential to costumbre engender a conservation ethic that assures the continuance of a healthy ecosystem over the long-term. Moreover, I describe how local sacred sites also illustrate the adaptive nature of Maya belief and ritual, indicating the means in which ecological knowledge has remained viable through the many changes of the last centuries (even millennia). I found that long-term traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) – the body of institutions, beliefs, and practices developed through interaction with the biophysical environment over a long period – is embedded in the local spiritual system. However, institutional or social frameworks nested across scales are necessary for the acquisition, transmission, and effective use of TEK. In this report I detail how Maya spirituality is such a framework, remaining highly adaptive and transcending scalar issues to mediate between short-term wants and long-term sustainability as well as transfer on-the-ground ecological knowledge into long-term social memory. In fact, even in the face of the abandonment of ‘traditional’ belief, prior conceptions of the sacred still impact ecological management practices in ways that safeguard the health and resilience of both the local landscape as well as the human population integral to it. Scholars have noted that the best means to learn how to manage resources is to inquire of those who have been doing it the longest (Berkes et al. 2000:1251-1253; Peters 2000:219), and it is through such enquiry that I gained an understanding of the system of environmental management practice and belief extant in Ch’aqa’ Ya’ that I offer in the dissertation below.