Sustainable milpa farming: Preserving an ancient Mayan tradition

On a traditional milpa farm, rows of agave are interspersed with other crops: pitaya-bearing cacti and ramón trees. (Evan Barnard/University of Georgia)

(Editor's note: Interviews translated by Alberto Gutiérrez.)

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Around 60 million years ago, a large asteroid called Chicxulub made impact with the Earth along the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula of present-day Mexico. The asteroid’s impact resulted in dissemination of geologically young, thin soil across the peninsula and formation of a massive underground system of freshwater cenotes, which are natural sinkholes exposing groundwater. Over a thousand years ago, the Maya built their main ceremonial city, Chichén Itzá, along the edge of Chicxulub’s crater. The soil was thin, but freshwater was plentiful. To sustain Chichén Itzá’s large population, the Maya cultivated crops through an agricultural method known as milpa.

Milpa is a type of sustainable farming historically practiced by the Maya in the Yucatán and other parts of Mesoamerica. The polyculture milpas are planted with numerous crops, such as beans, corn, peppers, and gourds, for local community consumption rather than supporting a single crop for economic value like modern monoculture commercial farms. Milpa agriculture requires no agrochemicals, thus keeping groundwater clean. The ancient Mayan empire survived on milpa farming. Some 60% of the population on the Yucatán Peninsula today are of Mayan descent, and numerous modern Mayan communities practice milpa.

Adolfo Rodriguez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Chapingo, is a milpa farmer in the Mayan community of Maxcanú. Dressed in a traditional straw hat and white, long-sleeved guayabera, Rodriguez proudly recounted the history of his farm. Back in the 1800s, the farm was a large plantation growing henequen, an agave plant used to make twine and ropes for ships and other fiber-based products. Most of the global supply of henequen, also known as Yucatán sisal, came from the Yucatán peninsula. Demand for henequen eventually decreased due to the rise of synthetic fiber, thus the plantation converted to milpa farming.  

Professor Adolfo Rodriguez
Professor Adolfo Rodriguez, a milpa farmer in the Mayan community of Maxcanú, shows pitaya, or dragonfruit, grown on his farm. (Evan Barnard/University of Georgia)

Rodriguez walked past bright magenta pitaya, or dragonfruit, growing on small cactus-like trees between rows of short, spiky agave plants. In typical milpa formation, there were rows of different crops interspersed within rows of other crops, with ramón trees sprinkled throughout the landscape. Ramón trees, whose use dates back to the beginning of the Mayan empire, are well adapted to the climate and distributed throughout the Yucatán. Rodriguez explained the strong link between the Mayan religion and milpa farming, which “has been the base of the culture of the Maya, of the religion of the Maya, of the (preservation) of the Maya. (To work) in the forest, you need to ask for permission (of) the owners of the forest. You need to ask to the gods for the rain, and when the people harvest, they need to say thank you with the special rituals to the gods.”

Modern Maya face challenges to their milpa system. Irregular weather patterns due to accelerated climate change have made predicting rainfall prior to the planting season increasingly difficult. Seasonal changes to rain cycles affect crop choices and planting schedules. “The Maya have different strategies to these changes,” Rodriguez said. “They have different species, different seeds, for the different seasons.” However, this adapted methodology might not succeed in modern polyculture milpas. Farmers determine when to plant one variety of corn based on the date of the first summer rain, and then plant other crops accordingly. Delays in the initial planting due to late seasonal rains result in changes to the rest of the crops for that season.

More problematic for 21st century Maya is generational loss of knowledge of milpa farming. “Now the youngest people are not working in the milpa, (and) there are generational breaks in which the parents don't want to know about the milpa,” Rodriguez said. “The (grandchildren) want to know it but the parents don't know how to manage the land, so all of this knowledge is (being lost) and the people nowadays cannot manage the land (the) way that the old people (did).” A new program teaches younger Maya about milpa farming techniques and continues to pass down generational knowledge.

Farmers are taking actions to make milpa farming more sustainable for the future. In traditional milpa farming, an area of forest is cleared, planted for two years, then allowed to lie fallow for eight years as secondary-growth vegetation before being replanted. By repeating this process continuously, land can be used for crops almost indefinitely. Some Mayan farmers no longer clear new land and let their land recover for 10 to 15 years instead of eight to increase the fertility of the land for the next crop cycles. “I’m working with another 15 farmers and I am trying to figure out better ways to cultivate my crops, but (it is) very difficult because we are many farmers and not all of us want to conserve this jungle,” said Don Francisco Puuc, a farmer and leader in his Mayan community of Yaxunah. His goal is to adopt more organic methods and cut as little of the forest as he can.

Modern milpa farmers plant domesticated varieties of native jungle species. The Germplasm Bank is a seed bank in the Mexican state of Mérida that stores massive collections of seeds and other viable plant samples, including historical collections of seeds of crops the Maya have planted for generations. “If you can’t preserve the whole areas with the forest, you can preserve the seeds,” said Dr. Maria Pulido-Salas, co-director of the Germplasm Bank at the Yucatecan Scientific Investigation Center. The seed bank created a partnership between local farmers and the scientific team to give seeds of certain species to local farmers for planting to keep those species resilient and adapted to current climatic conditions in the Yucatán. If seeds cannot be saved from harvests due to drought or other conditions, then the seed bank stock can be used for crop restoration.

Milpa farming sustained the ancient Maya for centuries. As modern Maya adapt their ancestral farming practices to counter accelerating effects of climate change, they seek not only to preserve their traditional farms and crops, but to maintain their way of life and culture for generations to come.

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