Milpa

December 8, 2009 at 8:45 pm Leave a comment

from Wikipedia

Milpa is a crop-growing system used throughout Mesoamerica. It has been most extensively described in the Yucatán peninsula area of Mexico. The word milpa is a Mexican Spanish term meaning “field,” and is derived from the Nahuatl word phrase mil-pa “to the field” (Nahuatl mil-li “field” + -pa “towards”). Based on the ancient agricultural methods of Maya peoples and other Mesoamerican peoples, milpa agriculture produces maize, beans, lima beans and squash. The milpa cycle calls for 2 years of cultivation and eight years of letting the area lie fallow. Agronomists point out that the system is designed to create relatively large yields of food crops without the use of artificial pesticides or fertilizers, and they point out that while it is self-sustaining at current levels of consumption, there is a danger that at more intensive levels of cultivation the milpa system can become unsustainable.

The word is also used for a small field, especially in Mexico or Central America, that is cleared from the jungle, cropped for a few seasons, and then abandoned for a fresh clearing.

Charles C. Mann described milpa agriculture as follows, in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Knopf, 2005, pp. 197-198):

“A milpa is a field, usually but not always recently cleared, in which farmers plant a dozen crops at once including maize, avocados, multiple varieties of squash and bean, melon, tomatoes, chilis, sweet potato, jícama, amaranth, and mucana…. Milpa crops are nutritionally and environmentally complementary. Maize lacks the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, which the body needs to make proteins and niacin;…. Beans have both lysine and tryptophan…. Squashes, for their part, provide an array of vitamins; avocados, fats. The milpa, in the estimation of H. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, “is one of the most successful human inventions ever created.”

It should be noted that the concept of milpa is a sociocultural construct rather than simply a system of agriculture. It involves complex interactions and relationships between farmers, as well as distinct personal relationships with both the crops and land. For example, it has been noted that “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 Indian society in Mesoamerica and its religious and social importance often appear to exceed its nutritional and economic importance.”[1]

from the El Pilar Forest Garden Network:

Home to the advanced ancient culture the Maya, humans have lived under the majestic canopy of the Maya Forest for thousands of years, influencing the forest as we know it today.

We often think of the rainforest as untouched by humans, or “virgin forest.” In reality, it can be understood as the garden of the ancient Maya: the product of millennia of management by forest gardeners who cultivated the cycle of milpa, forest garden, and forest. In fact, 90% of plants in the forest are useful to humans, indicating considerable human influence. The Maya Forest remains the second most biodiverse place in the world (the Amazon forest is the first). The legacy of the ancient Maya forest gardeners is continued by the Maya farmers of the El Pilar Forest Garden Network.

Alfonso Tzul, a modern Maya farmer and retired agricultural extension officer, describes how forest gardens came to be: “God created plants and animals and the world around us. Trees grew in the forest, seeds spread, birds sang, and animals flourished. All was already there. Man came along and preferred this plant, favored that seed, enjoyed those birds, and supported those animals, creating and using the forest as a garden to sustain those plants and animals. The job of the forest gardener is to manage the forest by adding, removing and nurturing plants, to make sure that certain species grow where they will be most viable.”

The milpa cycle is the conservation method of farming and managing the Maya forest. It goes through four main stages over the course of approximately 20 years: from the forest to the milpa; from the milpa to the forest garden; and from the forest garden back to the forest.
The traditional milpa and forest garden is an unplowed, multi-crop field that sustains biodiversity and animal habitat while producing plants for food, spice, shelter, medicine, ornament and profit. It can be fertilized by household refuse (compost), organic material (dead weeds), ashes from kitchen fires, and manure, enriching the soil and increasing productivity without the use of chemically manufactured fertilizer.

STAGE 1: From the Forest to the Milpa
In the first stage of the milpa, a piece of forest is cleared of trees, and then burned to prepare for planting. For the first two to three years the Mesoamerican trilogy of maize, beans, and squash are cultivated in the full sun. Amidst this low canopy of maize is a dynamic ecology of herbs, tubers, and other plants that we might consider weeds, but are actually cultivated by the forest gardener to detract pests from the main crops, enhance the soil with nutrients, and help maintain moisture in the ground.

STAGE 2: From the Milpa to the Forest Garden
In the second stage, the milpa evolves into the forest garden. Quick-yielding fruit trees, like plantain, banana, and papaya, are planted and begin to produce within a year. Fruit trees that need more time to produce, such as avocado, mango, citrus, allspice, guava, cherimoya, ramón, and others are planted amidst the maize, beans, and squash to bear fruit in five years.

STAGE 3: From the Forest Garden to the Forest
In the third stage, the fruit trees mature and begin to produce. The fruit trees provide a new canopy, blocking the sun and inhibiting undergrowth. Maize, beans, and squash are no longer viable in the shade. Amidst the fruit tree canopy, hardwoods, such as cedar and mahogany, are planted to mature over the next decades.

STAGE 4: Forest Regeneration
In stage four of the milpa cycle; the forest garden is transformed into a hardwood forest. The hardwoods rise above the fruit trees to create a high canopy. The milpa has now regenerated to look much like it did before the forest gardener cleared and burned it two decades earlier. It is now a managed forest with little to no undergrowth. The forest gardener will let the hardwood trees grow and mature. He or she can harvest the trees for personal use or sell them when they again clear, burn, and plant the field. The cycle of the milpa begins again.

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Claytonia perfoliata (Miner’s lettuce, Winter Purslane, Spring Beauty, or Indian lettuce; syn. Montia perfoliata)

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