In Langscape Magazine Articles

Can the Cenotes be Saved? Biocultural Conservation in Yucatán, Mexico

August 07, 2018

Text and photos by Yolanda López-Maldonado

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“This is the account of how all was in suspense, all calm, in silence; all motionless, still, and the expanse of the sky was empty. . . . There was nothing standing, only the calm water, the placid sea, alone and tranquil. Nothing existed.” — Popol Vuh

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Tranquil water typifies the cenotes of Yucatán, Mexico. 2014

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It’s rainy season in Yucatán, in the south of Mexico, and for more than eight months, a great portion of the water that falls as rain will infiltrate and reach the Maya soils and, sometimes, a stream will disappear into a cave or cenote, recharging the groundwater aquifer. Along with caves and springs, cenotes (from the Mayan word d’zonot, “sinkhole”) are types of karst — a landscape underlain by eroding limestone. Cenotes can vary in size from a very small individual sinkhole to whole interconnected cave systems and can be found both on land and inshore marine areas. In principle, all cenotes in Yucatán are connected; however, it is possible that, due to sedimentation, some cenotes are now isolated because ducts have become filled.

Cenotes are the home of important endemic species; they feed springs and support wetlands; and they provide our water needs. Nevertheless, some environmental problems (such as pollution and biodiversity loss) particularly affect the Ring of Cenotes — a globally important groundwater system, now designated as a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) — that was created by the Chicxulub meteorite impact sixty-five million years ago. (This is the event that is thought to have caused the extinction of Earth’s dinosaurs.) Despite these problems, Indigenous peoples search for personal and spiritual meaning in many cenotes of Yucatán.

Cenotes are the home of important endemic species; they feed springs and support wetlands; and they provide our water needs.

Most of the rural communities in Yucatán depend, directly or indirectly, on groundwater resources derived from the more than two thousand cenotes. Beekeepers, farmers, Maya elders, women, children — all of them are the direct local resource users and are also responsible for taking care of and protecting the cenotes.

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Local wells (pozos) are used to extract water from the cenotes. 2014

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Yes, I Am an Idealist: I Am a Maya Woman

Sacred natural sites are areas of land or water having special spiritual significance to peoples and communities and may include mountains, hills, forests, groves, rivers, lakes, lagoons, islands, springs, and caves. They are the oldest protected areas of the planet, constitute biodiversity hotspots, and are useful for conservation. However, sacred natural sites are subject to a wide range of threats, including culture change, which can lead to loss of spiritual values that safeguard them. Protecting sacred sites is especially critical in Indigenous communities, as these places constitute sources of cultural identity.

Yucatán is an area with many places of cultural and environmental significance, most of them water related, including traditional sacred natural sites such as springs, landscapes. and caves, as well as human-made monuments. The Maya, one of the ancient cultures that developed in the region, have a particular worldview related to the use of the cenotes as a source of freshwater.

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Sacred cenote in Chichen Itza, Yucatán. 2017

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As an academic woman, through science I learned that freshwater represents an important life-sustaining resource. As a Maya woman, I was taught about the importance and the sacredness of life, and this has instilled in me an extreme curiosity about and feeling of awe for nature. Born and raised in Yucatán from a Maya background, I directed my efforts to caring about what surrounds me: water.

Due to the universality of water, however, I strongly believe that this is not only a question of science, since there is enough evidence of the importance of water management to past and present societies — of which the Maya of Yucatán are one example. The Maya developed a complex system of water management dependent on water collection and storage devices. The hydraulic system was tailored to local biophysical conditions and adaptively engineered to the evolving needs of a growing population. But, most importantly, my cultural group has a particular cosmology, worldview, and traditional ecological knowledge related to water that has been handed down through generations.

As an academic woman, I learned that freshwater is a life-sustaining resource. As a Maya woman, I was taught about the importance and sacredness of life.

My interest in cultural issues is closely linked to my background. I grew up in a small community in Yucatán, where dramatic ecological, social, and cultural changes have been taking place ever since the Spanish conquest. These events played a major role in accelerating the assimilation of Maya people into the “non-Indigenous population,” which included a decrease in the use, continuity, and preservation of our traditions.

For me, the exchange of cultural information and histories with my mother re-affirmed my identity and was an empowering, as well as a grounding, experience.

From a young age, I regularly visited cenotes with my mother. Some days the weather was so warm that we were ready to enter and swim in the cenotes located around my community. However, before entering the cave we had to ask for permission from the spirits living in there. We did the same every day that we visited the cenotes. For me, the exchange of cultural information and histories with my mother re-affirmed my identity and was an empowering, as well as a grounding, experience. My vision since those times is to support conservation of cenotes by respecting Maya wisdom.

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Bringing Indigenous knowledge back into the hands of my community. 2015

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Over the years, I also realized that the importance of the water to the Maya is simple: everything is related to water and the underworld, where supernatural beings live, where the souls of the dead go, and where ancestors reside. Historically, practices and culture were oriented toward water in general and rainfall in particular. Archaeological sites with such evidence are signs of long-term spiritual connection and cultural importance. This suggests that the cenotes in the Maya area were culturally valued and respected in the past.

For the contemporary Maya of Yucatán, the situation is different. Cenotes are commercially used primarily for tourism and agriculture, despite the evidence everywhere of the ancient sacredness of groundwater in the Yucatán. Many of the cenotes contained ancient Maya pottery, fire pits, and human and animal remains below the water table, but some of them are now contaminated and degraded. Sacredness appears to be understood by some of the population, but certainly not all. Some believe that cenotes are the abode of deities and spirits and understand that cenotes were primarily used for rituals in the past. Through disempowerment and dispossession brought about by colonization, however, it has become difficult for Indigenous peoples to relate to their environment.

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A Maya elder during our visit to the cenotes. 2014

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As a way to support community initiatives by Indigenous peoples to revitalize their culture, preserve traditional knowledge, and safeguard the future of cenotes as important cultural and spiritual places, I decided to enroll in a PhD program and started a research project on cenotes in 2013. PhD projects related to hydrological aspects of nature can be based on scientific papers and adopt many forms, but most of them tend to exclude the cultural values and knowledge of Indigenous people. From the beginning, I felt that embarking on a PhD was an opportunity to give voice to my ancestors. This motivated me to develop and build relationships with Indigenous people and local communities in Yucatán and to take part in a process of coproduction of knowledge, so that I could share the knowledge and skills that I learned during my PhD studies throughout community events, workshops, and activities with youth. This was a pivotal moment in my journey to becoming a guardian of our sacred natural sites.

From the beginning, I felt that embarking on a PhD was an opportunity to give voice to my ancestors.

My work was guided by Maya elders, mentors, and local community members who, through their knowledge and along with the incorporation of scientific findings, allowed me to contribute towards cenote conservation. My goal was to help to revitalize Maya Indigenous knowledge to preserve sacred natural sites through the emotional involvement of the Maya with the environment.

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Cultural and Spiritual Values of Cenotes

The Maya have survived for millennia by using and managing their groundwater resources. Cenotes were sacred sites and important elements for survival during the dry season. They played a major role in religion, politics, and subsistence; provided fish, clay for pottery, and stalactites to build altars; and were associated with rituals and ceremonies. They were thus set aside as religious sites, as places inhabited by spirits. Cenotes needed to be culturally protected, and evidence of this can be found throughout the entire Maya zone. Although local people value and have some knowledge about the resource, they continue to have a heavy impact on it.

By bridging natural and social sciences with the knowledge held by the Indigenous people and by developing actions with different groups, through carefully planned local projects, and cooperation, I believe that it is possible to protect cenotes and to work together for a better ecosystem.

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Learning from the Past

Culture and traditions from the past and current knowledge can be brought together to increase the range of knowledge available to address some of the problems. For example, groundwater use in the Maya region has depended on an intimate knowledge of the resource. Nowadays, the population still practices some water-oriented ceremonies, but values, beliefs, and meanings regarding cenotes’ sacredness seem to have declined. Although some ancient Maya Indigenous beliefs still exist, cenotes have been suffering from this erosion of values. Naturally there is always cultural change and thus the loss of some values, changing the ways in which groundwater is used, but these values can also change still further—toward conservation. Such changes would necessarily involve deliberation and mutual learning among the people engaged.

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Ceremonial items on the table: the green cross, copal, and the traditional beverage. 2017

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But how do the Maya people value the cenotes at present? One way to understand this is through an analysis of how they ascribe meaning to them. For example, when asked, almost all the people in Yucatán believe in spirits and supernatural beings that guard the entrance of the cenotes and caves. Some seemed to know of the ancient institution of cenote guardians, spiritually powerful humans or animals, and mentioned that the guardian of the cenote is a snake: “To be a guardian you have to have knowledge and special powers as X’menes [Maya healers] used to have. No one has it now; it is something which someone was born with” (student, female, 21 years).

They believe that those beings punish people who enter the cenotes without permission. However, there is no agreement regarding current management and what can be done to protect cenotes. Overall, the responses suggest that the link between sacredness and cenotes has been broken, even for some who acknowledged spiritual powers: “I don’t know the cenotes, and I’ve never been into a cave, but I know that there exists some spirit that inhabits there and protects the entrance of the cenote” (student, male, 20 years). Linguistics often provides insights into local perceptions: people in the communities recognize well over twenty ways to characterize “water” in the Mayan language, but they were not able to express the specific concepts of “contaminated water” or “polluted water.” Besides, the majority of the population did not understand that all cenotes are part of a single, interconnected groundwater system and cultural values did not seem to be considered. Thus, with little coordination among users and government, conservation of cenotes is a challenge.

Cenotes are part of a culture thousands of years old and cannot be managed in isolation from it.

We cannot ignore people’s strong desire to learn about cenotes, restore cultural practices, and revitalize the values of sacred places, despite the profound sense of loss of local and traditional knowledge (e.g., rainwater harvesting) and a lack of self-recognition as custodians. Confronting those problems means that there is a need for cultural and environmental revitalization and recognition of cenotes as sacred natural sites. Cenotes must be understood as an integral part of the society that uses the resource. Because cenotes are interconnected through the groundwater basin, they cannot be managed as isolated entities. Similarly, cenotes are part of a culture thousands of years old and cannot be managed in isolation from it.

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Yolanda López-Maldonado is an Indigenous researcher with experience in freshwater issues and Indigenous peoples. She has focused on social aspects of nature conservation and worked for international organizations in social issues and science fields and has collaborated with communitarian organizations. She is combining natural and social sciences with traditional ecological knowledge that respects Indigenous knowledge.


Further Reading

Berkes, F. (2018). Sacred Ecology (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Huntington, E. (1912). The Peninsula of Yucatán. Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, 44, 801–822.

López-Maldonado, Y., Batllori-Sampedro, E., Binder, C., & Fath, B. (2017). Local groundwater balance model: Stakeholders’ efforts to address groundwater monitoring and literacy. Hydrological Sciences Journal, 62(14), 2297–2312. doi:10.1080/02626667.2017.1372857

López-Maldonado, Y., & Berkes, F. (2017). Restoring the environment, revitalizing the culture: Cenote conservation in Yucatán, Mexico. Ecology and Society, 22(7). doi:10.5751/ES-09648–220407

Maffi, L., & Woodley, E. (2010). Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook. London, England: Earthscan.


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