Twenty-five years ago, a UCSB explorer discovered ancient Maya ruins straddling the border between Guatemala and Belize. This Wednesday, the site will officially become the first archaeological peace park in the world.
Dr. Anabel Ford, director of the Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research and the Mesoamerican Research Center at UCSB, found and mapped the ancient archaeological site of El Pilar in 1983. Since her discovery of the Maya ruins at El Pilar, Ford has been working with both the Guatemalan and Belizean governments to establish the location as a shared park spanning the two countries.
“I discovered El Pilar 25 years ago and I began the cross border aspect of the project in 1993,” Ford said. “I was doing a project to survey looking for sites, but I was never really tinkering to find a real site… I want the community involved in it – I’d like to have people engage in the natural setting of the site and learn that the forest is a garden.”
Ford added that the park will be able to illustrate the area’s history, as well as the importance of environmental preservation.
“I’m very interested in showing that the Maya used the ancient forests very wisely and did not abuse it,” Ford said. “I hope that El Pilar will be a place that we can show this, because nobody has thought of it this way. It’s iconoclastic.”
According to Ford, the discovery of El Pilar required her to make diplomatic advances to both the Guatemalan and Belizean governments so she could obtain their assistance in protecting the archaeological site.
“When you discover a new archaeological site, you need the government’s interest in protecting it,” Ford said. “We’ve invited three Guatemalan delegates from the Ministry of Culture, the highest level of historical and archaeological resources in the country… If this goes forward – that is if we can actually make it a peace park with both countries involved – we will have established the first archaeological cultural peace park in the world.”
At the urging of Ford in 2005, a collaborative agreement was signed at UCSB with Belizean delegates to establish the peace park.
To finalize the process, Guatemalan dignitaries from various state agencies are scheduled to sign the Memorandum of Understanding at UCSB in the McCune Conference Room at 2 p.m. Wednesday.
Chancellor Henry T. Yang, among others, will be joining the Guatemalan officials in the signing of the MOU. The event will follow a forum at 1 p.m. entitled “The El Pilar Peace Park Initiative, Building Collaboration at El Pilar.”
Ford said she returns to the area three to four times per year, and also takes individual students as well as class groups with her on the visits.
Chrissie Bausch, a UCSB graduate in Latin American and Iberian Studies and Religious Studies, traveled to Belize with Dr. Ford from April to June of this year.
“I was doing undergraduate fieldwork for a research project on conservation practices of the traditional Maya forest gardeners,” Bausch said. “It was wonderful. I got to spend a lot of time out in the jungle with the Maya, who were extremely welcoming and knowledgeable. I feel really lucky to have had that experience.”
The bi-national agreement represented in signing of the MOU will mark the 25th anniversary of the discovery of El Pilar by Ford, who has been working in the Maya forests since 1972 and has devoted her life’s work to researching and protecting the region.