The strengths and weaknesses of milpa

In spite of the simplification and degradation of milpa over the centuries,
it is clear that its success is built up on the diversity of its genetic
resources and the integration of a variety of agricultural and non
agricultural activities into a unified production strategy. Rather than
trying to maximize production (a difficult task in such agriculturally
limiting conditions), the strength of milpa resides in its ability to
spread the risk of crop failure from drought, pests and disease. It is this
defensive aspect that has given milpa the resistance to survive for so long.

One of the most interesting aspects of Teran and Rasmussen´s study is the
light it sheds on the diversity of plant genetic resources and their
fundamental importance then as now in making milpa a viable system. The
authors found mention of 53 edible plants in the 16 th century sources.
Later colonial sources refer to an amazing 107 different native food
species found growing in Yucatan, all of which can still be found today
(Colunga and May, 1992).

Teran and Rasmussen suggest that because the farmers in ancient times were
able to do so little with the soil, they concentrated their efforts on
plant breeding, particularly on the production of plants which matured at
different times and in different ecological niches. In this way they
increased their chances of obtaining a harvest however variable the
weather, the incidence of disease and pests.

Another way of diminishing risk was through the cultivation of not one but
various milpa sites. Variations in microclimates and soils assured that
even if one or two sites failed to produce a harvest there would always be
others to fall back on.

But, just as the Spaniards were surprised by the abundance of plant species
they were dismayed by the scarcity of domestic animals, especially draught
ones. This prompted them to start the genetic exchange between the Old and
the New Worlds which included introducing cattle from Spain, thus
initiating one of the ecologically most destructive activities in the region.

It has been observed that at any one moment a large proportion of the
nutrients of tropical ecosystems are stored in the vegetation, hence the
latter is sometimes referred to as a farmers "capital". In order to make
use of these nutrients for agriculture, the vegetation must be felled and

These practices have sometimes led milpa to be unfavorably compared with
other agricultural systems especially as burning under very dry conditions
can result in uncontrollable forest fires. The consequences of short term
destruction, however, must be weighed against the long term regeneration of
the vegetation and the survival of a diversity of species.

Ecological studies have shown how adaptation to fire has taken place in
these environments and how it contributes to the rapid regrowth of the
dominant species (Levy and Hernandez, 1989). Other systems, such as cattle
ranching, do not rely on fire but they have permanently replaced the
diverse forest with a few species of grass which, in the long run,
contributes far more to climatic change, soil erosion, flooding and the
loss of biodiversity.

In summary, the principal differences between milpa today and how it was
practiced in prehispanic times would appear to be derived from
socioeconomic circumstances - the greater availability of forest-covered
land, the communal system of land ownership and a ruling class that favored
it, or at least did not actively undermine it by introducing competing
systems and relegating it to the most marginal areas.

The erosion of milpa

This slash and burn system has been undermined both spatially and
structurally in two fundamental but closely interrelated ways:

1) through the destruction of its basic resource, which, it has been
emphasized, is not simply land but land covered by mature forest and

2) through establishing closer linkages with international markets and
world trade.

And further:

1) The felling of mature forest for a small farmer in Yucatan is tantamount
to losing his/her capital, or a least seeing it diminished because, as less
forested land becomes available, the fallow period is reduced and yields
fall. Instead of having access to land which has "rested" for some 20
years, most peasants today are now clearing areas that were cultivated as
few as 5 or 8 years ago. Yields have fallen as a result.

The two agricultural systems that have had the greatest spatial impact on
milpa are the henequen industry (from the second half of the last century
till the 1970s) and, extensive cattle ranching, since the 1950s.

2) The structural undermining of milpa by linking Yucatecan agriculture to
international markets and world trade is more subtle, complex and
ultimately more pernicious as it has been achieved by gradually diminishing
small farmer control over their resources.

Government control over prices, limiting farmer access to finance and
conditioning the way such finance is used, bringing in competition from
other areas and encouraging the adoption of new technology are just some of
the mechanisms that have been frequently adopted. Milpa´s organization
around satisfying subsistence needs rather than maximizing profit makes it
unfit for competition.

Thus as international links have spread and gained in intensity milpa has
found itself at a growing disadvantage with less land, a smaller and older
labor force and now even threatened with losing control over its germplasm
through the World Trade Organization's insistence on extending intellectual
property rights and such developments as "terminator technology".


The Spanish made no secret of their consideration of the Maya as inferior
beings to be exploited in their search for wealth. Thus
social and economic inequality, backed by the force of law, was established
on the basis of an ethnic line drawn between the Spanish and the Maya
populations. This line marked the division between those who had power,
status and access to resources and those who did not; between those whose
value system was upheld by the force of law and those who were obliged to
abandon their cosmovision, their customs and their most sacred values in
favor new ones. Although with time the division blurred, its legacy of
turning people against people, people against environment and system
against system is still with us.

My comment -- it most certainly is!! The Greens have taken over where the
Spanish left off!!

This is what that UN Charter is all about -- and why it was written!!

Of course -- it will never apply to here in Belize -- where the Greens be
above all laws of man!!

All the above from this "paper":

Amarella Eastmond
Unidad de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán
([email protected])

Prepared for delivery at the 1998 meeting of the Latin American Studies
The Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Chicago, Illinois
September 24-26, 1998


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