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 RH Reality Check 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.
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.