Science & Technology



What ancient farmers can really teach us about adapting to climate change – and how political power influences success or failure

Chelsea Fisher, University of South Carolina, The Conversation on

Published in Science & Technology News

Modern Maya milpa practices began drawing public attention a few years ago as international development organizations partnered with celebrity chefs, like Noma’s René Redzepi, and embraced the concept.

However, these groups condemned the traditional milpa practice of burning new areas of forest as unsustainable. They instead promoted a “no-burn” version to grow certified organic maize for high-end restaurants. Their no-burn version of milpa relies on fertilizers to grow maize in a fixed location, rather than using controlled fire ecology to manage soil fertility across vast forests.

The result restricted the traditional practices Maya farmers have used for centuries. It also fed into a modern political threat to traditional Maya milpa farming: land grabs.

Traditional milpa agriculture requires a lot of forested land, since farmers need to relocate their fields every couple of years. But that need for forest is at odds with hotel companies, industrial cattle ranches and green energy developers who want cheap land and see Maya milpa forest management practices as inefficient. No-burn milpa eases this conflict by locking maize agriculture into one small space indefinitely, instead of spreading it out through the forest over generations. But it also changes tradition.

Maya milpa farmers are now fighting to practice their ancient agricultural techniques, not because they’ve forgotten or lost those techniques, but because neocolonial land privatization policies actively undermine farmers’ ability to manage woodlands as their ancestors did.

Milpa farmers are increasingly left to either adopt a rebranded version of their heritage or quit farming all together – as many have done.


When I look to the work of other archaeologists investigating ancient agricultural practices, I see these same entanglements of power and sustainability.

In central Mexico, chinampas are ancient systems of artificial islands and canals. They have enabled farmers to cultivate food in wetlands for centuries.

The continuing existence of chinampas is a legacy of deep ecological knowledge and a resource enabling communities to feed themselves.

But archaeology has revealed that generations of sustainable chinampa management could be overturned almost overnight. That happened when the expansionist Aztec Empire decided to re-engineer Lake Xaltocan for salt production in the 14th century and rendered its chinampas unusable.


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