As climate changes, Mayan farmer modifies the milpa

Farmers Gualberto Casanova, left, and Dionisio Yam Moo stand among young corn plants in Yam's improved milpa plot. Photo: NPR
Farmers Gualberto Casanova, left, and Dionisio Yam Moo stand among young corn plants in Yam’s improved milpa plot. Photo: NPR

Climate change is forcing Mayan farmers to reconsider age-tested techniques. And one local farmer thinks he has found a new method to force diverse crops from the peninsula’s thin layer of soil.

NPR found Dionisio Yam Moo, a 78-year-old “proudly Mayan” farmer who grows corn, beans and vegetables on a six-hectare farm on the Yucatán peninsula. His traditional milpa practices, of cutting and burning patches of forest, planting crops for a few years, and then letting the same parcel regenerate for up to 30 years, has worked for millennia.

But local milperos have struggled as climate change has brought erratic rainfall, making the growing season less predictable. A National Public Radio report found that Yam always planted his corn in May. But in 2015, he says the rains didn’t come until August, and then it flooded, destroying most of his crop.

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Yam and other farmers have developed a modified milpa called milpa maya mejorada or “improved Mayan milpa.”

Rather than cutting down new forests, he has found that by tilling in compost, chicken manure and other organic additions, he can grow far more crops per hectare. The added nutrients keep the soil healthy and productive, meaning he doesn’t need to clear new ground as often, or perhaps at all.

He also employs an above-ground irrigation system that is fed by rainwater. 

The idea has caught the interest in academics, but it’s not a magic bullet. Read more at NPR.

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