UCSB signed an agreement with Belizean dignitaries yesterday to launch a new collaborative preservation program in the ancient Maya city of El Pilar.

The Memorandum of Understanding renews a previous contract signed in 2005 and creates a new archaeology program to preserve the city and its surrounding area. The agreement is part of a collaborative management plan that enlists Belize and Guatemala to safeguard the site while allowing UCSB researchers to perform studies there.

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UCSB Chancellor Henry T. Yang and Belize National Institute of Culture and History president Diane Haylock sign the Memorandum of Understanding contract to preserve the city of El Pilar.

UCSB associate anthropologist Anabel Ford, director of the UCSB MesoAmerican Research Center’s El Pilar Program, first mapped the ancient Mesoamerican city of El Pilar in 1983. Ten years later, she began campaigning for its conservation and the city ultimately received protected status in both Belize and Guatemala. The program’s goal is to restore the city to its original state, as it stood between 600 and 900 A.D.

George Thompson, acting director of the Belize Institute of Archaeology, said the 5,000-acre reserve is a rare archaeological site because it includes both an ancient city and its surrounding forest gardens.

“El Pilar is one of our premiere archaeological reserves,” Thompson said. “It is unique in that it combines the archaeology and the environment while also integrating the adjacent communities and culture.”

According to Ford, the new MOU created the “Archaeology Under the Canopy” program to preserve El Pilar and the rich biodiversity of the surrounding land.

“‘Archaeology Under the Canopy’ is a concept to keep the ancient monuments in the context of the forest,” Ford said. “This concept has been the vision for El Pilar and our MOU will reinstate this as the goal for the site.”

Signatories of the MOU include Ford, Thompson, Chancellor Henry T. Yang and Diane Haylock, president of the Belize National Institute of Culture and History.

Yang said Ford’s work at El Pilar generated ground-breaking discoveries in the history and culture of the Maya people.

“Dr. Anabel Ford and her colleagues have worked at this site for nearly three decades,” Yang said. “Their international collaboration continues to reveal the unique history and prehistory of the area and serves as a model for research and teaching on conservation practices. El Pilar is a remarkable site for studying sustainable forest gardening.”

Although Belize and Guatemala are enmeshed in an ongoing territorial dispute, Ford said both countries value cultural preservation efforts and remain committed to the site’s preservation.

“The Maya forest is a hotspot of biodiversity and all want to conserve it,” Ford said. “Likewise, Maya sites are an important national heritage for both countries. It links to the very things that all agree — the wonderful Maya forest and the magnificent Maya culture.”