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Sustainable Agriculture: The Maya Forest Garden

The farmers at El Pilar Maya Forest, straddling the Belize-Guatemala border, carry the knowledge of a 2000-year experimental practice - an ingenious cycle of planting which left most of their land forested. The farming system known as milpa, which entails the cutting back of sections of heavy forest and multi-cropping, sustained the Mayan population for centuries.

Slash and Burn

The Maya cleared a part of the forest for harvesting by cutting down and burning plants and trees. The farmers would then plant corn in the nutrient-rich ash without needing to plow the land. This approach involved two years of cultivation and eight years of fallow to allow for the natural regeneration of vegetation. By continuing the process in other areas, the land was used for crops indefinitely.

Multiple crop planting

To maximize productivity, crops such as beans and squash were planted together in fields of maize so that the beans could climb the maize stalks for support and the squash would cover the ground and help reduce soil erosion.


El Pilar is evidence that sustainable agriculture is not a new idea. Its farmers are unique in that they have continued their ancestral farming practices until the present day. Explorations of the Maya Forest Garden could lead the world to a more sustainable future - possibly the greatest gift to mankind.


Works cited:

“Milpa Cycle.” Welcome, www.marc.ucsb.edu/research/maya-forest-is-a-garden/maya-forest-gardens/milpa-cycle.

“The Maya Forest Garden & El Pilar. A Coloring Book. - Digital Archive of Latin American and Caribbean Ephemera.” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University, lae.princeton.edu/catalog/2195dc22-aef3-496c-b1d7-d87430957f65?locale=en#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=2&xywh=-1067%2C0%2C7638%2C3468.

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