The milpa agroecosystem: a case study in Puebla, Mexico


Authors: José Espinoza-Pérez, Oscar Pérez-García, Cesar Reyes and Petra Andrade-Hoyos

General - 2024

ISSUE No.: 62


Language: English


In the Totonacapan region of northeastern Puebla, Mexico, two maize production systems are prevalent: the milpa and the maize field (maizal). The milpa system is an emblematic agroecosystem which focuses on traditional food production for self-consumption, utilising crop and land rotation to contribute to its sustainability and coexistence with native ecosystems. Adopted for commercial purposes, the maize field is the result of the government’s modernisation of traditional agriculture. The article examines why the milpa system persists over the maize field in the same cultural and environmental space, exploring the benefits and costs of both systems.

The milpa system involves the cultivation of maize along with other crops and perennial woody species. It supports food security, diversifies the diet, and generates income from surplus products. Fruit trees and woody perennials in the milpa strengthen soil fertility, control weeds, provide firewood, and serve as stakes or supports for beans and as retaining walls or windbreaks. The system also incorporates useful plants like nopal and maguey for multiple purposes, including food and medicine. In contrast, the maize field system is characterised by commercial maize production and the use of improved maize varieties. While it generates income, it lacks the diversity and sustainability of the milpa system. Farmers recognise the cultural value of native maize and the environmental benefits of the milpa system but find it challenging to transition back due to soil degradation and labour-intensive practices. The milpa agroforestry system ultimately persists thanks to its provision of traditional foods, economic benefits, and environmental advantages, unlike the maize field system which faces challenges related to monocropping and loss of cultural heritage. 

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