Away from the beach resorts on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the interior rural fields and forests are quiet and don’t suffer much light pollution. There photographer Erich Schlegel captured this image in a corn field at about 3 am, three hours south of the area’s largest city, Merida. Photo © Erich Schlegel

Outtakes: Life Among the Modern Maya

A photographer travels to the Yucatan Peninsula, where villagers are saving the tropical jungle by mixing ancient farming and modern science.

Fall 2017

Not far from the crowded beaches of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, inland village life lies at the intersection of farming, ranching and attempts to conserve the remaining tropical jungle. For a Nature Conservancy story, Austin-based photographer Erich Schlegel traveled southeast to the Yucatan for three weeks in 2016 and 2017 to capture how local ranchers and farmers make a living while preserving the forest surrounding them.

Many people there descend from the Maya and, in a landscape dotted with ruins from that civilization, they still depend on the land as their ancestors did, Schlegel says. “It’s a very intimate connection and respect for their land,” he says. “They realize that they need to take care of what they have now. They understand that it’s important for their survival.”

The farmers are infusing ancient farming practices with modern science—updating their traditional milpa farming techniques (in which multiple crops are planted on a single field) to enrich soil. Ranchers are adopting silvopastoral practices, in which rotational grazing is used to improve pasture grasses, and strips of land are left forested in ranching fields. Since 2011, The Nature Conservancy has worked with Yucatan communities to establish these practices and to create a forestry management program that together help preserve tropical forests as a way of storing carbon emissions. (Read more about these projects in the Fall 2017 magazine story.)

Schlegel captured images of these practices but also village life, where baseball is king, the hospitality is deeply welcoming and the tortillas—made from corn grown down the road—are superb. “Fresh corn tortillas…there’s nothing like it,” Schlegel says.

Read below for some of the photography that didn’t make it into the magazine story.

Schlegel met rancher Jose Palomo on his ranch near San Agustin. Palomo practices silvopastoral ranching. Part of that means leaving strips of forest in his fields, which gives his cattle shade to rest in during the heat of the day. Photo © Erich Schlegel
To give a sense of how closely agriculture and tropical jungle co-exist in the Yucatan, Schlegel used a drone to capture this image of the village of San Agustin. “I wanted to show the contours of the terrain and the proximity of the agriculture to the town,” he says. “There’s a lot of forest left there. They really try to maximize the use of the field that they already have and leave as much forest as possible.” The road at the bottom of the picture is the main road in town. The red building is the local school and, across the street, the rectangular building is the local corn mill, which grinds the corn grown on fields nearby for use in foods like tortillas. Photo © Erich Schlegel
Schlegel estimates he met most of the villagers in his time in San Agustin. Each Friday a group of women would gather to weave hammocks on the community basketball court. Yucatan hammocks are some of the most sought after. “They’re made with cotton cloth with a real tight weave,” Schlegel says. “They’ve very comfortable.” Photo © Erich Schlegel
“In the Yucatan, because there’s much more of a Caribbean influence, baseball is king,” Schlegel says. “Every small village has a baseball field as their square. And the love of that game was cool to see. I kind of felt like I was in Cuba rather than Mexico.” Schlegel happened to be in San Agustin for their area baseball championship. (The village later won the series.) “It’s very friendly,” he says. “The beer truck comes and they buy cases and cases. People are selling candies and whatnot on the side. It’s a fun atmosphere.” Photo © Erich Schlegel
The Yucatan’s interesting geology makes ecotourism another popular industry on the peninsula, alongside agriculture and ranching. “There’s a lot of limestone, a lot of sinkholes with water,” Schlegel says. “I love that the forest is growing through the hole in the roof here.” Photo © Erich Schlegel


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