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

Today, the future of chinampa agriculture hinges on a pocket of protected fields stewarded by local farmers in the marshy outskirts of Mexico City. These fields are now at risk as demand for housing drives informal settlements into the chinampa zone.

Traditional Andean agriculture in South America incorporates a diverse range of ancient cultivation techniques. One in particular has a complicated history of attracting revival efforts.

In the 1980s, government agencies, archaeologists and development organizations spent a fortune trying to persuade Andean farmers to revive raised field farming. Ancient raised fields had been found around Lake Titicaca, on the border of Peru and Bolivia. These groups became convinced that this relic technology could curb hunger in the Andes by enabling back-to-back potato harvests with no need for fallowing.

But Andean farmers had no connection to the labor-intensive raised fields. The practice had been abandoned even before the rise of Inca civilization in the 13th century. The effort to revive ancient raised field agriculture collapsed.

Since then, more archaeological discoveries around Lake Titicaca have suggested that ancient farmers were forced to work the raised fields by the expansionist Tiwanaku empire during its peak between AD 500 and 1100. Far from the politically neutral narrative promoted by development organizations, the raised fields were not there to help farmers feed themselves. They were a technology for exploiting labor and extracting surplus crops from ancient Andean farmers.

Reclaiming ancestral farming techniques can be a step toward sustainable food systems, especially when descendant communities lead their reclamation. The world can, and I think should, reach back to recover agricultural practices from our collective past.

But we can’t pretend that those practices are apolitical.


The Maya milpa farmers who continue to practice controlled burns in defiance of land privatizers understand the value of ancient techniques and the threat posed by political power. So do the Mexican chinampa farmers working to restore local food to disenfranchised urban communities. And so do the Andean farmers refusing to participate in once-exploitive raised field rehabilitation projects.

Depending on how they are used, ancient agricultural practices can either reinforce social inequalities or create more equitable food systems. Ancient practices aren’t inherently good – it takes a deeper commitment to just and equitable food systems to make them sustainable.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world.

Read more:
Indigenous Mexicans turn inward to survive COVID-19, barricading villages and growing their own food

It’s time to rethink the disrupted US food system from the ground up

Chelsea Fisher has received research funding from the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the Fulbright-Hays Program.


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