The Mayan people are known for their cosmogram pyramids, such as Chichen Itza. They’re also known for having vanished, speculatively due to a great famine, war, or sickness. What has gained less attention, and yet was at the heart of the Mayan society, is their agricultural practice, the Milpa Cycle.
The word Milpa comes form the Nahuatl language and means “to cultivate a place” in reference to the cycle of the Mayan forest gardens. These gardens are estimate to be 5,000+ years old, and cover most of the Yucatan Peninsula.
“The Maya forest, once thought to be a wild, pristine jungle, is, in reality, the result of prehistoric, colonial, and recent human activities (Denevan 1992a). Yet the human role in shaping the forest environment has been ignores in the historical ecology of the Maya region and the narrative of its people” (Ford, Nigh, The Maya Forest Garden, pg. 15).
Though the cycle is complex, a general and simplified breakdown can be understood as such: First, a 5-7 hectare area of forest is burned in a controlled manner. The burning enriches the soil, and is followed by the planting of scattered short term crops that will provide for the community for around 7 years. This is followed by the rise of taller plants and fruit trees, which will last another few decades and finally the canopy trees spring up. All together, over 90% of the forest garden is usable by humans, but is also so closely linked to the other organism that it operates just as the forest had before the cycle began.
Video in Spanish: Milpa Cycle
The whole cycle, from burning to indistinguishable tropical forest garden, takes 52 years. After that cycle, the area is left so the Earth my rest, and the Maya would burn a new patch. In an area there would be 13 settlements, centered around a place of worship, usually a pyramid. Each community would preform multiple milpa cycles, within a larger 256 year cycle. At the end of this cycle the near by land had all been cultivated, and needed to rest, so the majority of the Maya community would move to a new site. These cycles were adhered to and recorded in the Mayan calendar (see tab on Mayan settlement patterns).
“Considering fire as destructive misses the mastery of its use where fire breaks are well established and burning is careful and strategic, taking into account conditions of wind, temperature, and time of day. Historically built around an ecological relationship with the environment, Maya croplands…replicate in miniature the tropical forest. Cropping is a tightly woven fabric, where the planting of trees and shrubs and leaving of choice trees make up the reforestation process. IN fact, the pejorative word “primitive” belittles the elegant simplicity of the small-scale, basic technologies that are transportable, flexible, and tailored to the forest.” (Ford, Nigh, The Maya Forest Garden, pg. 18)
The milpa cycle was sometimes symbolized as a woman, born as a girl, learning to walk, growing into adolescence, womanhood, becoming a mother, and the new cycle would be born with her daughter (above diagram demonstrated this, as well as some of the foods grown in the forest gardens). Linked closely with time, society, the source of life – the forest- the milpa cycle stood at the center for Mayan culture for well over 10,000 years.
Today, there are people in the southern states of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala who are Mayan, and preserve this knowledge and agricultural wisdom. Their bravery and survival skills have kept this ecology alive in the face of colonialism, its legacy, economic crisis, hegemonic oppression, and the onset of the ecological crisis. They have begun to re-implement and apply this knowledge to current lifestyles. There is much to learn from the Milpa cycle, and many uses and new ways to respect it in the future.