What is nature? The are two different uses of this word, one meaning the characteristics of someone or something and the other referring to the earth and all its creatures except man.
Nature in the second sense is "in" these days. One can see the influence in the advertising and public relations of the major corporations. Indeed, Earth Day gets increasingly more support than did the first one in 1970. This indicates a growing awareness of the problem, the disastrous effects of one species, humans, upon this planet.
But the problem runs deep, imbedded in the very assumptions of our Western culture. We assume our authority comes directly from God, "So God created man in his own image... Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." (Genesis 2:27,28).
The assumption of the inevitability of domination is inherent in the structure of our language. All the Indo-European languages are based upon the subject-verb-object relationship. One assumes that is the way of communication, describing the action of some entity upon another entity, delineating the hierarchy of domination, the "natural" order. Only by stepping outside our own culture can we begin to see the underlying assumptions.
The Mayan languages embody cultural assumptions different from the those of the Indo-European cultural languages. Instead of the subject-verb-object structure, each entity "owns" characteristics, qualities and actions that define its nature. The objective is to learn the proper place of this entity in relation to all others. While in Western culture one might ask, "what caused this effect?" or "who is doing what to whom?" the Maya would ask "what is the nature of this entity?" and "how does it fit in with the rest of the universe?"
For example, a wise Mestizo (Mayan/Spanish combination) friend of mine advises not to go against nature. He says,
"it is the nature of a clock to move in the forward direction; one must not turn it backwards or it will break.
"Nature piles seaweed on the beach. One must not clean it up or the beach will wash away."
These Mayan cultural assumptions are evident in the Central American country of Belize. One thousand years ago, a Mayan civilization flourished in this land. Today Belize has a small, but culturally diverse population, including four indigenous cultures, three of which are Maya, and a number of more recent immigrants, speaking eight different languages. These cultures each maintain their own identity but coexist in relative harmony. Belize has the unique advantage of a small human population (200,000). El Salvador has nearly the same land area but over 6 million people.
Thus, in Belize there are still areas which are relatively untouched by civilization and other areas where the human population lives in balance with nature.
Such a balance with nature is shown in the Community Baboon Sanctuary along the Belize River. Baboon is the local name of the black howler monkey which is found in the lowland areas of Belize, northern Guatemala and southern Mexico. Habitat areas are rapidly disappearing, especially in Guatemala and Mexico, because of the pressure of increasing human population. The Community Baboon Sanctuary is the first of its kind in the world, a new idea in wildlife preservation. The land is privately owned by 70 Creole farmers who have joined together and signed a pledge to voluntarily maintain habitat areas for the preservation of the baboons. This involves leaving strips of forest between fields, along the river, and conserving the favorite food trees for the monkeys. It is also important to provide for connections between the habitat areas to allow for communication between the troops of monkeys for genetic diversity. To facilitate this a monkey bridge was built over the road.
These Creole farmers have been there for several generations. When I asked an elderly farmer how long he had lived there, he replied, "I bahrn (born) here; my dahddy, he bahrn here; and his dahddy, too."
The Mayan influence is shown in the use of the milpa system of farming where an area, small by North American farming standards, is cleared in the dry season with a machete, left to dry, burned, and then planted with corn, beans, rice, cassava, coco-yams, and other food crops. The same area is slashed again in the wet Fall season, left to rot, and planted again. That area is then allowed to lay fallow for 15 years before being cleared again. It is the nature of the corn to deplete the soil of nutrients, and the nature of the wild growth to regenerate it.
Some of the land is in pasture land for raising cattle and horses. There are no barns here, for there is no need to put up hay for the winter. The houses are typical Caribbean cottages, neat wooden houses built up on stilts, surrounded by a cleared yard containing a few chickens, turkeys or guinea hens. Out buildings include a roosting house for the fowl, an outhouse, and a fire hearth for cooking. Guest rooms have been built under the houses to accommodate visitors who are fed delicious Creole food at the family table.
It is the nature of the black howler monkey to eat leaves, fruit, and flowers of fig, trumpet, hogplum, sapodilla, bucut and roseapple trees; to court and reproduce; to nurture and groom each other; and to howl. The riverine forest where the baboons live is not dense; it has tall trees giving the baboons safe havens, and light underbrush which does not restrict the view of the monkeys. One is surrounded by light green, a background against which the very black baboons stand out as they sit, run and swing in the trees.
The howl is a low-pitched roar produced in a resonating chamber in the back of the throat which can be heard as far as a mile away. With a population of 1200 along this 20 mile stretch of the Belize River, the sound fills the air even when one is in bed. It is not annoying like the barking of a neighbor's dog, but somehow soothing, reassuring, perhaps because here is an example of a balance between human activities and those of other living things.
In contrast to the black howler monkey, the nature of the jaguar is not compatible with human activities such as cattle farming, for the jaguar requires a large area of dense rain forest in which to live and hunt. The Belize government has set aside the Cockscomb Basin as a wildlife sanctuary for the preservation of the jaguar. The Sanctuary Headquarters consists of a Visitor Center, bunkhouses, and warden's office. Visitors are provided with bunks, sheets, a propane cooking stove, and rain water for drinking.
The Headquarters is surrounded by dense, dark green jungle through which a few trails have been cut. One cannot see very far as the rainforest closes in, so the other senses take over. The musky order of decaying vegetation is often interrupted by the fragrance of a flower's perfume hanging in the still air. The sounds of birds and insects blend into a constantly changing jungle chorus. A grunting sound like a pig turned out to be a hummingbird, only one example of many surprises in this exotic environment. One seldom sees jaguars because their nature is nocturnal and shy, but their presence is strongly felt. Tracks are seen in wet ground near the rivers and streams, piles of feces are often found along the road, and, occasionally, a roar is heard at night. In the dark one can hear splashing noises at the riverside as the nocturnal creatures bathe and drink, some of which sound large enough to be an elusive tapir or even a jaguar.
Other endangered species include several species of sea turtles which come out of the sea to lay their eggs on beaches, the same nice beaches that humans love, increasing the value of the land tremendously. It is the nature of the turtle to hatch in the cool of the night and to crawl toward the lightest horizon, the reflection of the moon or the stars on the sea. They must reach the deep sea soon after they hatch to escape land predators such as racoons, coatimundis and dogs, and shallow-water fish, such as barracuda and snappers. Even under natural conditions only one in a thousand hatchlings grow to maturity.
But suppose the hatchlings instead see a mercury vapor lamp erected by a human inhabitant. They will crawl toward the light, get lost in the brush and die of dehydration in the morning sun, further decreasing the survival rate. The turtles are threatened by human horseback riders because the action of hooves on the soft beach sand destroys nests.
Environmentalists in Belize have sought the cooperation of the land developers who own the coastal areas where sea turtles nest. The proposal is for a program similar to the Community Baboon Sanctuary where the new owners of the beach lots would sign pledges upon buying the land that they will neither install beach lighting nor sea walls; that they will have no pets or horses; and that they will protect the laying turtles and the eggs from poachers. This is another example where some understanding of the nature of the endangered species allows preservation with appropriate limitations upon the human inhabitants.
The most vulnerable ecosystem of Belize is also the most popular tourist attraction, the barrier reef that extends the entire length of the country. It is the nature of coral to grow on underwater escarpments where constant bathing by wave action provides an ample microscopic food source.
Coral is a community of tiny, delicate animals that are easily killed by the fins of an awkward human snorkler standing to adjust their mask; whole communities are destroyed by the two-ton anchors of the diving cruise ships. Coral thrives in well-oxygenated, nutient-poor water. Where the water is contaminated by sewage or other organics, algae will overgrow the coral smothering it and bringing fungal disease.
The attraction is obvious as one descends into the wonderland of the reef. Brightly colored fish abound. The tiny red cardinal fish dart in and out of the coral. The rainbow-colored parrot fish cruise around; and a large school of blue tang flow gracefully by. The purple sea fans wave in the current, but the most ornate are the appendages of worms instantly retracted when one gets close enough to examine the intricate feather-like gills.
Through the efforts of Janet Gibson, the Hol Chan Marine Reserve has been established. For this accomplishment she was awarded the prestigious, international Goldman Environment Prize, the award described as the Nobel Prize for environmentalists. Fishing is not permited in the reef area. The Reserve also covers the mangrove and turtle grass beds which are the nursery areas for the fish of the reef.
This is a popular tourist site where one sees lobster, conch and fish in greater numbers and larger sizes than where they are taken by human fishing activities. Moorings are provided for tourist boats to prevent damage to the coral from anchors.
These are only a few examples of the environmental consciousness of Belize, of attempts to counteract the disaster we humans have wrought upon this earth. Those from the developed nations have much to learn from this small country, these few people, with extremely limited resources, who have already accomplished so much. They show us that asking, "what is the nature of this species?" and "how does it fit in with the rest of the creatures of the earth?" leads the way to living in balance with nature.Judy Lumb, 1990