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Milpa Forest Gardens of the Maya

Milpa Maya Illustration by Julia Watson. Lo—TEK. Design by Radical Indigenism

Milpa shapes woodland ecosystems without the use of fertilizers and pesticides, being dependent instead upon forest succession.

The most widely known agroecological system of the ancient Mayan civilization, which remains central to traditional agricultural practices, is the milpa. More than fostering sustainable food production, it is a sophisticated resource management system that has been practiced for millennia.

From the Nahuatl phrase ‘mil-pa,’ meaning cultivated field, milpa describes an an open-field polyculture centered on maize production that rotates with woodland vegetation in a ten-to twenty-five-year cycle.

Milpa shapes woodland ecosystems without the use of fertilizers and pesticides, being dependent instead upon forest succession. 

This contemporary swidden¹, or shifting cultivation system, is activated with fire and was historically used by the Mayan people of the lowlands of southern Mexico and northern Central America. 

Associated with most forested areas of the tropical world, shifting cultivation involves the regeneration of woody vegetation after a period of annual cropping.

New land is cleared using slash and burn agriculture in which forested areas are cut down and prepared for cultivation using burning, mulching, fertilizing, and fallowing processes to increase soil fertility.

As possibly the oldest form of farming in the Americas, swidden¹ is often blamed for deforestation while in fact it plays a large role in forest conservation,

¹ – Swiddens: Areas of land cleared for cuttivation by slashing and burring vegetation.

‘The making of milpa is the central, most sacred act, one which binds together the family, the community, the universe… [it] forms the core institution of indigenous  societies in Mesoamerica and its religious and social importance often appear to exceed its nutritional and economic importance’ – Ronald Nigh 

Twenty Year Pyrotechnology Ecology of the Milpa Cycle

The milpa cycle travels through four main stages over a twenty- to twenty-five-year lifecycle.

In the first stage, a piece of forest is cleared then burned to prepare for planting. For the first two to three years, the Mesoamerican trilogy of maize, beans, and squash are cultivated in full sun. Amidst the Three Sisters low maize canopy, a dynamic ecology of herbs, tubers, and other plants are cultivated to attract pests away from the main crops, enhance the soil with nutrients, and maintain moisture.

In the second stage, fast-yielding fruit trees, like plantain, banana, and papaya are planted amongst the maize, beans, and squash, producing fruit within a year. Slower-yielding fruit trees that bear fruit within five years, such as avocado, mango, citrus, allspice, guava, cherimoya, and ramón are also planted. 

In the third stage, fruit trees mature and produce, providing a new canopy and blocking the sun while inhibiting undergrowth. Maize, beans, and squash, which are no longer viable in the shade, transition out of the system. Amidst the fruit tree canopy, hardwoods, such as cedar and mahogany, are planted to mature over the coming decades. 

In the fourth stage, the forest garden is transformed into a managed hardwood forest with little to no undergrowth. As the hardwoods rise above the fruit trees, they create a high canopy and appear much like the original forest that was cleared two decades earlier. The cycle of the milpa begins again with plants typically cultivated from seeds saved from the previous year’s harvest.

The Mesoamerican trilogy: maize, beans, and squash

The Three Sisters triology is one of the major products of milpa agriculture.

Grown symbiotically, the maize provides a structure for the beans to climb, which imparts the soil with nitrogen that is beneficial to surrounding plants. The squash spreads along the ground blocking the sunlight, preventing weeds, and creating a microclimate for moisture.

Together, the three crops offer a balanced diet for humans; maize lacks the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, which the body needs to make proteins and niacin, both of which beans contain. Maize is the central crop in the milpa system with supplemental crops planted including; red kidney beans, cocoyams, sweet potatoes, black beans, squash, soup yams, pepper, cotton, ginger, sesame seed, okra, pumpkin, cho-cho, rice, plantain, tomato, melon, banana, cassava, and sugarcane. This form of intercropping reduces weed infestation by taking the space weeds would need to grow. 

Milpa cultivation sites surrounded by mature forest are preferred as the local tree seeds are collected for replanting in later stages. This practice, combined with intensive daily weeding, results in the careful control of the soil seed bank and accelerated succession.

Forest sites which are regenerated following milpa cultivation are known as jurupche or acahual. They are highly-diverse and skillfully-managed vegetation communities.

Traditional Mayan milpa farmers support forest ecosystem services by planting and protecting trees that accelerate post-agricultural succession.

The woody vegetation builds soil fertility by cycling nutrients leached from deeper soils. For example, the roots of the Sapium lateriflorum act as a phosphorus pump, drawing this limitied nutrient from deep soils up towards the forest floor.

The swidden component of milpa agriculture, also referred to as ‘slash-and-burn’, is highly criticized and misunderstood for its potentially negative effect on soils and forests. Contrary to widespread hesitation of purposely creating fires, swidden cultivators are careful and skilled pyrotechnicians.

Controlled fires are intentionally created to burn at low temperatures; preserving organic matter, decreasing damage to woody vegetation, and favoring fire-resistant species in the woodland seed bank.

Burning newly felled vegetation in tall forest areas clears land for planting, and the regeneration of secondary vegetation follows swidden cultivation with a positive effect on soil fertility.

Among the benefits of fire is its contribution to nutrient flow and to long-term soil fertility in the form of biochar. This is charcoal produced by low-temperature pyrolysis, a process of thermal decomposition. In general, burning reduces weeds and pests, releases soil nutrients, replenishes nitrogen, and adds phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and manganese contained in the ash to the soil.

In some geologies, such as the limestone-based soil that underlies the forest throughout most of the Mayan area, burning releases calcium, which is essential for crop production. When properly managed, the milpa swidden cycle results in enriched anthropogenic soil.

Humans have been living and altering the ecosystems under the canopy of the Mayan Forest for thousands of years. ​
Humans have been living and altering the ecosystems under the canopy of the Mayan Forest for thousands of years. ​

The milpa sites are also believed to be a place of spiritual significance, and the cultivation of maize, a spiritual act. 

The milpa is a system of agriculture that illustrates a skillful engagement with the forest, involving complex interactions and relationships between farmers, crops, and land.

Maize defines the way of life for the Mesoamerican, from creation mythology to ethnic identity and everyday practices. The first mothers and fathers of the Mesoamerican are believed to have been formed from maize, with white corn for their bones, yellow corn for their flesh, black corn for their hair and eyes, and red corn for their blood.

“The Offering to Mother Corn”
Tatei Niwetsika Teiyari (“The Offering to Mother Corn”) - Wenima Lucía López Robles & Fidel De La Cruz López - Hypha's Art Collection - Curated by Tamaatsi. Corn represents a very important goddess in the Wixáritari’s (Northern Mexico) cosmovision. They honor her at key times during the annual solar cycle. Their main source of livelihood is the corn harvest, so almost all of their ceremonies relate to Niwetsika. Five different varieties of corn were inherited to the Wixáritari. Each one possesses a characteristic color: red, white, blue, and yellow. The fifth one has seeds of all the other colors, and each variety has unique spiritual characteristics.

The Mayan ritual calendar is interwoven with the annual agricultural cycle and ceremonies, which are performed at each stage of maize growth, beginning with the planting and concluding with the harvesting.

Agricultural rituals vary according to local traditions, but common themes are found throughout Mesoamerica, such as the reenactment of the creation of the world by marking the four cardinal directions of the milpa through offerings or orders of planting.

In Amatlàn, Mexico, Nahua villagers say, ‘Corn is our blood’ Maize, and the intimate connection between maize and humans, arises again and again in ancient and modern myths.’

In recent years, concern has been expressed about the impact of our current model of industrialized agriculture and its ability to meet the demands of sustainability, biodiversity conservation, and food security for all.

While industrialized agricultural systems have higher productivity, they rely heavily on pesticides and fertilizers and lead to long-term environmental degradation. The detailed indigenous knowledge driving the Mayan milpa is valuable today as we face the urgent need for ecological restoration, preservation of genetic biodiversity, and the renewal of rural livelihoods.

Unfortunately, the current policies of most local and national governments express doubt over the success of milpa practice, especially the role of fire. 

Despite pressures on small scale farmers to turn away from traditional agriculture, the milpa’s ten thousand years of experience in Mayan culture may hold knowledge that can improve contemporary agricultural practices. 

Though it is unlikely that the milpa agricultural system can be reproduced on an industrial scale, the traditional ecological knowledge embedded in its design offers guidance for designing sustainable agriculture in the future. 

When applied to contemporary farming practices, milpa practices can increase productivity and maintain biodiversity. These systems hold inherent value to those who will be charged with safeguarding food security in the wake of climate change.

‘By studying the milpa’s essential features, – writes scientific journalist Charles C. Mann-, ‘researchers may be able to smooth the rough ecological edges of conventional agriculture. 

Traditional Maya Ceremony to maize
Traditional Maya Ceremony to maize

Increasingly, modern agricultural systems are being recognized as unsustainable. Practices such as monocultures, excessive tilling, and the application of artificial fertilizers and pesticides are being linked to the deterioration of soils, depletion of aquifers, and the global collapse of bee populations which are critical to pollination.

In contrast, the milpa is an ancient intercropping system planted within the forest that by using pyrotechnology and succession harbors enormous agrobiodiversity, while maintaining the heritage of an ancient agrarian civilization.

Indigenous use of pyrotechnology in agriculture is often blamed for deforestation, while in fact it naturally increases soil fertility and supports forest growth and conservation.

Through the use of fire, indigenous peoples like the Maya have managed complex ancient agroforestry ecosystems to meet their physical, economic, cultural, and spiritual needs. The milpa system, while a lesser-known vestige of the Mayan civilization than the ancient stone temples of Chichen Itza, offers knowledge and practices that could shape new integrated agricultural systems for many communities.

The pyrotechnology practices of the milpa offer an alternative to the unsustainable methods of industrial agriculture systems.

Through species symbiosis seemingly pristine woodland inhabited by the ancient Mayan civilization leaves a legacy of Agrarian innovation that remains to the present day.

Source: Julia Watson. Lo—TEK. Design by Radical Indigenism

The editor and author

Designer, activist, academic and author Julia Watson is the principal of her eponymously named design studio working at the intersection of anthropology, ecology, innovation, and collaborates as Watson Salembier, a full-service landscape & urban design studio specializing in rewilding. Julia also lectures and consults with Fortune 500 companies to align their missions with global sustainability goals, by designing and implementing systemic change for their Sustainability, Innovation & Futures sectors. She regularly teaches Urban Design at Harvard and Columbia University. After graduating from Harvard with the highest award for her work on conservation and spiritual landscapes, she has been published in ioARCH, Topos, Seacities, LAF, The Philosophy of Dumbness, Nakhara Journal, Water Urbanisms East, World Heritage Sites and Living Culture of Indonesia, and co-authored the Spiritual Guide to Bali’s UNESCO World Heritage with Dr. J. Stephen Lansing.

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