Unlocking the Secrets of the Mayan Milpa Agriculture

The milpa is a traditional Mesoamerican agricultural system that relies on a polyculture of domesticated plants, including corn, beans, squash, and chili, and integrates various activities such as cattle raising, beekeeping, and more.

Unlocking the Secrets of the Mayan Milpa Agriculture
The Milpa System's Enduring Legacy of Resilience and Sustainability. Credit: Gran Museo del Mundo Maya

The milpa is a traditional agricultural system that has been practiced by the indigenous people of Mesoamerica for thousands of years. It is a polyculture that includes a variety of domesticated plants, including corn, beans, squash, and chili. This system has been the main source of food and livelihood for the people, and it has played a significant role in their cultural, social, and economic lives.

However, the traditional milpa system has been threatened by the impacts of neoliberal policies and the introduction of transgenic crops. The importance of preserving the milpa and its genetic resources cannot be overstated, as they hold key solutions for global food security, health, and environmental challenges. This text talks about how important the milpa is and how it needs to be recognized and protected as an important part of the world's agricultural heritage.

The Heart and Soul of the Milpa

The milpa is a Mesoamerican polyculture that, in Yucatan, has 30 species and more than 100 variants of domesticated plants. The heart of the milpa is made up of corn, beans, squash, and chili, which contain all the nutrients required by the human body. In each region, there are also different species.

These plants, domesticated by the farmers, have been the main technology of the milpas. Since they depend on rain, after sowing in May or June, rain is requested by the watering gods, and when the corn ripens, thanks are given to the gods and supernatural beings that made it possible.

Many activities are articulated around the milpa: the cultivation of the plot and the orchard; cattle raising; beekeeping; hunting; handicrafts; the extraction of species from the forest (for houses, firewood, instruments, utensils, and medicinal plants); and the elaboration of lime and charcoal. They make up a system of production that depends on the family of a peasant and is the social, economic, and cultural foundation of the milpa.

Because it depends on a deep understanding of plants, soils, climate, and topography, this knowledge is just as important to the milpas as the plants themselves. Rituals to ask for rain, give thanks for the harvest, and ask permission to cut down trees and kill animals are important parts of agricultural technology because they are based on the idea that nature does not belong to people and is sacred.

Chaac Chaac ceremony is performed to ask for rain and a good harvest.
Chaac Chaac ceremony is performed to ask for rain and a good harvest.

The Unique Agricultural Tactics of Mesoamerica

Polyculture is how Mesoamerica dealt with its environment, which didn't work well with topographic soil management (plow, tractor) or hydraulic soil management (irrigation canals) like Egypt, Mesopotamia, or Lake Texcoco during the time of the Mexica.

In Mesoamerica, domesticated plants were the central part of agricultural technology. That is why Mexico is one of the great centers of plant domestication in the world, with more than 100 species such as corn, tomato, avocado, cacao, vanilla, and henequen, to mention a few.

The Surprising Sustainability of Slash-and-Burn Agriculture

Slash and burn have been necessary because tropical soils are poor in nutrients. After all, heat and humidity favor vegetation to absorb nutrients very quickly and not accumulate in the soil. Fertility in the rainforests is in the vegetation, and so slash-and-burn allows the nutrients from the trees to be incorporated into the soil.

Burning also cleans the soil of pests and diseases that attack crops. But burning eradicates vegetation for only two years. In the 16–18 years of regeneration, the vegetation and the corresponding fauna recover, and in that process, the carbon dioxide that was released by two years of burning is absorbed by the growing vegetation, and the atmosphere is cleaned more than it is dirty.

Unlike cattle ranching, which eliminates vegetation permanently, the milpa opens up land for two years and then returns it to the owner of the forest. The milpa creates a dynamic of forest conservation with different ages of vegetation.

How Modernization is Destroying a Simple, Sustainable Milpa System

What we've said above explains how a system as "simple and inefficient" as the milpa was able to support large, well-fed populations and encourage the development of complex societies, large cities, monumental buildings, refined culture, and important knowledge, such as those found in pre-Columbian societies.

This capacity of the Maya milpas to maintain large populations were maintained in the Yucatan Peninsula until well into the 20th century (that is, 3,500 years). Neoliberalism, which destroys forests, communities, and cultures and doesn't offer any good ways to deal with population growth, made the milpas less useful.

In addition, consumption, unemployment, poverty, and labor migration have increased (with the consequent abandonment of the milpa), with its policies that favor the concentration of wealth and the increase of poverty. Nor have public policies been pushed that would help the milpa plant grow and its seeds get better.

Transgenic corn was made to solve food and pest problems, but it doesn't do that. Instead, it causes transgenes to build up in native corn, which threatens their existence and that of the milpa. It also causes serious health and environmental problems and threatens national and global food security because it comes with a harmful set of agrochemicals.

The destruction of the milpa, its food, and its culture has led to a change in diet and a more sedentary lifestyle. This has caused a lot of indigenous people to become overweight and diabetic, and it is also making cancer and heart disease more likely.

Saving the Seeds and Traditions of the Milpa System

It is important to promote the conservation of milpas seeds because they are resistant to drought, which is one of the growing threats to global warming. The traditional diet must be re-established in some way to avoid obesity and diabetes, as well as other diseases. The only way to help protect the milpas' genetic resources (seeds) is to bring back the milpas' diet.

As a way to make money, the milpa has no future, but it is important to make sure that its resources are grown for self-consumption so that the indigenous and mestizo populations can eat in a way that is good for their health.

One way to protect the phyto-genetic resources (seeds) of the milpa is to promote its recognition as an "intelligent system of world agricultural heritage" (GIAHS). The FAO, which is the UN agency in charge of food, came up with this phrase to protect agricultural systems like the milpa, which has brought more than 100 species into human care.

By Silvia Terán