Study Abroad: Mexico - Ethnoecology Project

Chiapas RiverThe Soconusco Ethnoecology Project is an ongoing, multi-faceted program that explores the  nature of relationships between the people of Soconusco and their environment in the past and present. The project builds on a large body of archaeological, historical, and ethnographic research in the Soconusco region carried out over the past thirty-five years.

The Soconusco region is located along the Pacific coastal plain and the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountain range of Chiapas, Mexico. Soconusco’s climate is hot and humid with annual rainfall reaching over five meters in some areas. Soconusco is one of the most fertile regions of Mexico, and parts of the region have been identified as among the most botanically diverse regions of the world. The region has a large population of farmers who engage in subsistence farming, and a way of life based on corn farming and a heavy reliance on forest products is well-documented going back to Precolumbian times. 

Chiapas Lunch Break Chiapas in the Forest Chiapas Hillside Chiapas Roadside

Research in tropical forest regions in other parts of the world has demonstrated that a better understanding of  traditional agroforestry systems can often lead to the development of more sustainable forest management strategies that can have positive social and economic effects. Agroforestry refers to land-use management practices where trees and other crops are grown together. Traditional agroforestry systems are often sophisticated systems developed over centuries or even millennia that not only meet many local needs but also are based on sound and sustainable forest management principles.  Moreover, these systems can serve as models for the design of forest management strategies that can both slow the pace of deforestation and meet the health, social, and economic needs of populations in the tropics.

A major goal of the Soconusco Ethnoecology project is to explore the traditional agroforestry systems in Soconusco. Traditional agroforestry systems around the world typically include three key elements: 1) managed forests or “forest gardens,” 2) swidden agriculture and managed fallows, and 3) home or kitchen gardens.  All three elements are found in Soconusco, and they are a central focus of the research. To date we have carried out pilot research on home gardens, we have explored historical “forest gardens” (where cacao is the principle crop) as well as contemporary “forest gardens” (also cacao oriented), and we have investigated the traditional swidden agriculture/managed fallows systems.

Chiapas Cornfield Chiapas Cornfield2 Chiapas Rainforest Chiapas Cacao Chiapas Group

The classes also have recorded names, uses, and planting practices for over 300 plants. We have collected information about how plants are used for medicine, for household implements, and for food.

Chiapas Harvest
Chiapas Interview
Chiapas Plant Interview
Chiapas Corn

Classes also visit archaeological sites, museums, local markets, and nature preserves.

Chiapas VisitChiapas WallChiapas StatueChiapas BeachChiapas MarketChiapas Feast