Mayans Have Farmed the Same Way for Millennia. Climate Change Means They Can’t

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Author: Gabriel Popkin | Published: February 3, 2017

Dionisio Yam Moo stands about four-and-a-half-feet tall, and his skin is weathered from years in the tropical sun. A “proudly Mayan” farmer, he grows corn, beans and vegetables on a six-hectare farm in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. The farm is surrounded by dense tropical forest, and crops grow amid fruit trees in thin soil, with the peninsula’s limestone bedrock protruding in places.

Yam Moo farms using a traditional, rainfed practice called milpa, which has long involved cutting and burning patches of forest, planting crops for a few years, then letting the worn-out land regenerate for up to 30 years, before cultivating it again. Milpa has enabled generations of farmers like Yam Moo overcome the Yucatán’s poor, thin soil and grow a stunningly diverse set of crops — multiple varieties of beans, squash, chili peppers, leafy greens, root vegetables, spices and corn, the plant at the heart of Mayan identity.

In recent years, however, Yam Moo and other Yucatán milperos have struggled to keep their farms alive. Climate change has brought erratic rainfall, making the growing season less predictable. Yam Moo says he has always planted his corn in May. But in 2015 for example, he says the rains didn’t come until August. And then it flooded. He lost most of his crop, he says. Because milpa farming depends entirely on rainfall, which is never fully predictable, “there has always been a level of uncertainty, and the Maya have dealt with that for millennia,” says José Martínez Reyes, an anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “But with climate change, I think that uncertainty has grown exponentially.”

Years of unpredictable rainfall and failed crops pushed Yam Moo to find a solution, and it’s one that could in turn help fight climate change. Along with other farmers in the area, he developed a modified milpa called “milpa maya mejorada” or “improved Mayan milpa.” Yam Moo no longer cuts down new forests, but he still grows the same diversity of crops. And he has incorporated into the ancient practice a host of modern techniques that help him farm despite the more unpredictable rains. A recently installed irrigation system, which relies on an above-ground rain water collector (the Yucatán has almost no surface water) ensures that Yam Moo can survive droughts. And 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.

In 2015, after the rains ended in late summer, he replanted corn in a nearby field, arranging seeds in tight rows with the aid of a small garden tiller, and added organic fertilizers to boost yields. Later that year, he planted beans and vegetables. “As long as you keep feeding the soil, the soil will feed you,” he says.

Today, he’s back on his feet, feeding his family with what he grows on his plot. He hopes that his success can be a model for the more than 70,000 Yucatán milperos who, like him, are facing the punishing effects of climatic changes.

Yam Moo’s efforts have gotten some high-profile attention. As part of a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and private donors, the environmental group Nature Conservancy (TNC) is providing technical and financial support to get more farmers to adopt improved milpa. By helping farmers like Yam Moo adapt to the changing climate, TNC hopes to fight climate change, by reducing the deforestation traditionally involved in milpa: the practice is estimated to cause up to 16 percent of the deforestation on the peninsula. At a larger scale, the project aims to help Mexico receive payments from private companies and governments of developed countries to combat climate change.

“We’re addressing drivers of deforestation with cutting-edge, science-based practices that are good for the producer, that are good for the ecosystem, and that mitigate climate change risks,” says Mariana Vélez Laris, a local coordinator for TNC. The organic fertilizers and reduced burning help soil microbes thrive, she says, while sparing forests and the many species that thrive in them.


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