Ecology of Maya Swidden Agriculture

A Q'eqchi' labour group planting spring corn

Resilient Networks and the Historical Ecology of Q’eqchi’ Maya Swidden Agriculture

This project investigates the socio-ecological resilience of Q’eqchi’ Maya swidden agriculture in the Toledo District, Belize.

Sean Downey's research shows that simplistic predictions about the environmental limits of swidden agriculture belie complex socioecological relationships that increase the resilience of Q'eqchi' culture to a variety of social and environmental factors. For example, social network analysis has been used to show that labour exchange, a form of social reciprocity commonly practiced in Q’eqchi’ villages, provides a flexible matrix of social relations that allow farmers to adapt to social and environmental changes while maintaining agricultural productivity. This type of analysis is an example of resilience, or the ability of a social or natural system to withstand changes and disturbances without fundamentally reorganizing.

Historical patterns of interaction in coupled human and natural systems such as Q'eqchi' swidden agriculture are as yet poorly understood and the relationship between Maya farmers and swidden agriculture is particularly subtle because it involves complex patterns of hierarchical and common-pool management, all occurring within the context of an agricultural system that is embedded in both subsistence and market economies.

Improving our understanding of Q’eqchi’ swidden requires an interdisciplinary approach. Traditional anthropological methods have been used, including a multi-village household survey and life history interviews, to explain the relative importance of environmental and economic factors to the Q’eqchi’ throughout the 20th Century, as well as mapping and soil fertility analysis, to quantify the capacity and resilience of swidden agriculture.

The project attempts to resolve the apparent lack of strong leadership in Q'eqchi' villages which could enforce limits on environmental over-exploitation by selfish individuals (the tragedy of the commons) by analysing the 20th Century history of the Belizean alcalde system (nominal villages leaders), and structural features of Q'eqchi' labour exchange networks.

Related outputs

  • Downey, S. 2010 Can properties of labor exchange networks explain the resilience of swidden agriculture? Ecology and Society 15 (4): 15.
  • Downey, S.2009 Resilient Networks and the Historical Ecology of Q’eqchi’ Maya Swidden Agriculture. Dissertation. Tucson, AZ: School of Anthropology, University of Arizona.


  • National Science Foundation (USA)

Project Leader:

Project Partners:

  • University of Arizona


Further information:

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