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United Nations recognizes the wisdom of the ancient Maya milpa

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A man works his field collecting maize within his section of the local ejido. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

After 3,000 years, the Maya milpa has received worldwide recognition from the United Nations.

The UN was impressed by the ancient milpa system for its complexity as a productive model that includes the combined cultivation of beans, pumpkin, and, mainly, corn, the basis of regional food since ancient times.

The appointment of the Milpa Maya as an Important System of the World Agricultural Heritage for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization also recognizes the traditional milpa for its resilience to climate and modernity changes, long life, and contributions to the conservation of both the culture and biodiversity of the Peninsula.

Yucatán’s Secretariat of Sustainable Development reported that this global recognition is also the result of joint work with Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Yucatán, the region’s scientific and academic communities, civil society organizations, and more than 600 farmers.

Zapotec farmers return from their milpa, the garden plots that provide much of the communities’ food, in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo: Jeffrey H. Cohen, CC BY-SA

It all involved a long process that included documentation of the practice and preparation of the proposal “Ich kool: milpa Maya de la Península de Yucatán, Mexico.” The milperos were also visited by the UN committee.

Related: Climate change forces changes on the milpa

The program was created in 2005 to safeguard and promote the ancestral agricultural systems of the planet.

This system recognizes and protects sites that stand out for their biodiversity conservation.

The UN has designated 67 production crop models in 22 countries and has 13 new proposals from sites including Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Peru.

Ancient wisdom

Like other exceptional agricultural societies, the Mayan milpa cultivates and maintains local agrobiodiversity to give continuity and security to self-supply, nutrition, and the social fabric.

Milpa is a traditional agroforestry system formed by a polyculture that creates vital spatial dynamics of genetic resources. It is characterized by its knowledge, cultural adaptations, and diverse strategy based on planting various plants and carrying out multiple economic activities.

The milpa system is very deliberate. It is customary to have years of production of rest between crops, which leads to soil fertility, reducing the destruction of weeds and controlling harmful pests.

For the family economy of the milpa, productive diversity is fundamental, including orchards, livestock, and craft activities, among others derived from the community forest, such as timber harvesting, lime and coal production, wood for houses, medicinal plants, hunting, and beekeeping, all of which constitutes this as a complex system and a reference in the sustainable use of resources.

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