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Cultural or Ecological Sustainability? The Effect of Cultural Change on Sabal Palm Management Among the Lowland Maya of Mexico

Andrea Martínez-Ballesté, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico
Carlos Martorell, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico
Javier Caballero, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico

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Abstract

Sabal palm has been used for thatching the traditional Maya house for over 3000 yr. The great importance of this resource has promoted its management within home gardens. Although traditionally managed populations in home gardens are capable of ecological long-term persistence, the impact of cultural change on sustainable resource management is poorly understood. By means of interviews in 108 households, we obtained information about Sabal management practices, leaf demand, and sociocultural data. Density and size structure of the palm populations in the respective home gardens were also measured. By means of principal components analysis, the sociocultural data were summarized into a cultural change index, which was then statistically related to palm density, size structure, leaf demand, and management practices. Leaf demand along the cultural change gradient was estimated. Sabal populations were affected by the cultural change index. Palm density and the proportion of harvestable individuals were higher in the more traditional households. The number of management practices decreased, and the probability of felling adult palms increased with cultural change. As a result, the percentage of the total leaf demand satisfied by home garden production diminished from 118.2–69.4% as cultural change increased. Traditional practices seem oriented to increasing the palm availability. Seed sowing and the protection of seedlings and adults affect the life stages with the largest impact on the population growth rate, as measured through sensitivity analysis. This means that abandoning traditional practices and felling adults more frequently should reduce rapidly, which is consistent with the low palm density observed in less traditional households. The application of demographic models to Sabal tells us that traditional management warrants the persistence of the resource as long as the current conditions remain unchanged. In contrast, our data show that Sabal management may not be sustainable from a cultural perspective, since the cultural attitudes that affect palm management and demand change over time. Both approaches assess the same problem from different viewpoints reaching different but complementary conclusions. In this study, we propose new methods that integrate the ecological and cultural processes, which affect the sustainable management of the natural resources.

Key words

cultural change; ethnoecology; Maya; Mexico; Sabal; traditional management.
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087