U.N. agency promotes ancient Mayan farming techniques

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 milpa plot. File photo

The Milpa Maya is in the process of being recognized as a world agricultural heritage concept.

The designation, by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, acknowledges the cultural importance of the milpa, a crop-growing system used throughout Mesoamerica.

The milpa concept is associated mostly with the Yucatán Peninsula area of Mexico.

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The word is derived from the Nahuatl “mil-pa,” which translates into “cultivated field.”

Milpa agriculture produces maize, beans, and squash under a two-year cycle of cultivation and eight years of letting the land lie fallow. The system keeps the planting area nutrient-rich for crops without fertilizer or artificial pesticides.

Crispim Moreira, a United Nations representative in Mexico, welcomed the decision of the Mexican government to coordinate political and institutional procedures through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Previously, the Chinampero Agricultural System in Mexico City was given world heritage status. The Chinampas of Xochimilco, Tláhuac and Milpa Alta are an important source of fresh food for one of the most populated cities on the planet.

The chinampas comprise more than 2,000 in which about 12,000 people work mainly cultivating vegetables and flowers, including 51 domesticated agricultural species and 131 species of ornamental plants.

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Moreira praised the “the ancestral knowledge of native peoples for the production of food … throughout Mexico.”

Yoshihide Endo, coordinator of the Food and Agriculture program, explained that this measure seeks to identify and recognize agricultural systems for their traditional knowledge, biodiversity and notable landscapes.

“This is because they are productive alternatives that make sustainable use of biodiversity, while recovering traditional agricultural practices with little or no environmental impact,” he said in a press release.

In view of the environmental degradation suffered by the planet today — climate change, deforestation and biodiversity loss — it is necessary to return to the traditional methods of production that the ancient Mexicans developed, said Miguel Ruiz Cabañas, undersecretary of federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“It is important to recover this because it is also combined with the Objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with the universal purpose of eradicating hunger and poverty on the planet and protecting the environment,” he said.

By recognizing the Important Global Agricultural Heritage Systems, he said, the U.N. body seeks to “return to traditional historical wisdom” and contribute to sustainable food production and care for the environment.

On a practical level, the designation of world agricultural heritage can be integrated with commercial strategies to support the demand and prices of local agricultural products. For example, certified rice grown in a SIPAM in Sado, Japan, which is a refuge for the crested ibis — a protected bird — now reaches double the price compared to other similar rices in the region.

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