UCSB Latin American and Iberian Studies Program

Interview with Dr. Anabel Ford, MARC Director

Dr. Ford is adjunct Professor and Director of the MesoAmerican research center at UCSB. Her work focuses on the ancient Maya and the tropical forest of Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico. Archaeological field and laboratory work has concentrated in the upper Belize River area and El Pilar, and has both basic and applied components.  Working on the development of complexity and land use change, data have been collected on settlement patterns and household collections. The discovery of a major Maya center, El Pilar, has lead to studies of conservation and development of the Maya forest working towards the preservation of the cultural heritage in context of the natural environment.  Community and protected area development play a role in the field projects. Results have impact on the interpretation of sustainable in the tropics today.

Has your interest for anthropology been something that you’ve been passionate about since you were young? When and how did your interest for it develop?

My passion for learning and in appreciating cultures has been with me my whole life.  My family traveled and lived in Europe and the Middle East and I was exposed to different cultures and experiences form the time I was 3or 4. I was in schools in Rome, Vienna, Madrid and Beirut, always living in the community and sharing.  The exposure to other cultures gave me a flexibility in expectations, a curiosity for common ground, and an emergence in cultural relativity which is a base of Anthropology.

In terms of my interest in the Americas, that is really based on the fact that I was educated in the European tradition, without recognition for the values of other cultural developments.  I set my plan to visit all of the America and find out what it is to be form the Americas when I was first at University. My plan was to go from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. Well on the way I was captured in the Maya forest and while I intend to see the tip of South America soon, my deep research is bound to Mesoamerica and the tropical forests of the Maya.

Do you have any ideas on how to motivate today’s generation to take an interest in anthropology?

I have not thought of how to motivate an entire generation, but for those people with curiosity and those who seek to work in my lab, I can see that the varied avenues of field work have a great attraction.  There is the concern for the environment, the interest in traditional lifeways, the value of history, and importance of learning that compel people young and old to appreciate the diversity of our world.

Can you describe your research, El Pilar, and how it has developed over time?

My research initiated as an archaeologist investigating settlement and environmental relationships.  Beginning in Northern Guatemala and continuing in Western Belize, I wanted to know what geographic conditions could predict farmer settlement patterns. In the course of my field work in 1983, I encountered El Pilar.  This large center dominated the upper Belize River area and was situated in an ecotone that linked from the well-drained uplands of northern Guatemala where I had worked to the Belize River valley. Finding El Pilar would influence the trajectory of my settlement pattern research.

Through the 1980s I continued my mapping and test excavations that provided a general local scale assessment of civic and residential settlement in the upper Belize River area,  It was 1993 when I turned to focus on the civic architecture of El Pilar. Once considering the size and extent of El Pilar, I became interested in how to develop a protected area.  This would be a challenge as ancient El Pilar straddles the modern and contentious political boundary of Guatemala and Belize.

Beginning in 1995 and following the next 10 years, I developed and funded the Mesa Redonda El Pilar, a process of building confidence between the governmental, NGO, community and academy the set the foundation for the unique parallel management plans in Belize and Guatemala teat address the objective of one resource in two nations.

Today, we have 1) field research to map the entire 20 sq km binational space that embraces El Pilar, 2) community participatory component with citizen scientists working with the project and school outreach on the Maya forest garden, 3) the novel program of Archaeology Under the Canopy a novel visitor destination brand we have promoted to conserve the culture and nature of El Pilar, and 4) the peace park initiative that sees the potential for El Pilar to be the first cultural and natural cross border park.

Do you have any outside hobbies or interests you’d like to share with the LAIS community?

This reminds me of the interview when I won the Rolex Award for Enterprise.  Hobbies? My work is my hobby… 

·      I love learning languages and feel that knowing a culture is depended on that; there is Spanish and Belizean Creole

·      I have my ham radio license, and for most of the 1990s used it to communicate to my spouse in California, by 2005 things had changed but we still use 2mt radio in the field for contact

·      Photography is a great advantage in field work for chronicling the events of the season

·      Off road and 4W driving for some is a pastime, for our research it is a requirement with all the adventure you can imagine—stuck in mud, tree falls, new angles, opening spaces…

·      Hiking and camping can be a hobby but for field work in the Maya forest it can be a way of life

·      Traveling to new countries and experiencing new people and places for some is a vacation but for me it is part of my profession, invitations to give talks in South Africa, meeting journalists in Cambodia, collaborative workshops in India, comparative study of forest gardens in Sri Lanka!

·      Living in a foreign country and learning new the ways of life is also part of my research in Belize, Guatemala, and in Mexico as well as in Peru all as part of my profession

Related Link: 

Read more about Dr. Ford’s work here

View Dr. Ford’s Departmental Profile here