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Milpa, when corn wasn't golden yet

July 26, 2017
topic:Indigenous people
tags:#Nafta, #corn production, #Mexico, #milpa
by:Natalie Shafrir
Milpa, is the centuries old agriculture system in Mexico. Unfortunately it’s almost unknown. A reportage by fairplanet's media partner CONTEMPORARY FOOD LAB.

“Corn is everything” she said, as she moved from plant to plant, carefully checking each one with a glance. “It’s the heart of every community, every family. The boys of the family seed. The men work in the field. The women are the only ones that can know when the cob is ready for harvest and the girls then help process it all in the kitchen”. Dalia Rodriguez Hernandez is an indigenous woman from the area of Tlaxcala, and while she speaks her heart, she continuously moves around the field gathering the bright red, black, blue, purple and gold cobs into her basket.

While half of the world’s population owes its existence to rice, the other half thrived on corn – a grass derived plant domesticated by Dalia’s ancestors. Since about 7000 BC the people of Mesoamerica have based their survival on their indigenous starchy grain. With time, as it gained a fundamental role in their diet, so did it gain a cultural–symbolic one. Upon the discovery of the Americas, locals used corn as a trading currency; festivals in its honor are still held throughout the country and on the day of the dead – a Mexican holiday made to remember the deceased and help them in their spiritual journey – it’s used as decoration on graves and an offering to the spirits. “Just like the west has cutlery, Mexicans have Tortillas – no table can possibly be complete without it” says Laila Said, a young Mexican studying at the University of Gastronomic sciences. Corn is everything, she seems to say. And almost always, having corn, meant having a milpa.

The milpa system of agriculture is characterized by the planting of crops in temporary clearings. Instead of keeping the same land under cultivation, new clearings are cut and burned for planting, while clearings of previous years are abandoned to the wild vegetation. Doubtless, the utter simplicity of the system has tended to keep it from being recognized or studied as a factor of tropical life, though of worldwide distribution” writes O. F. Cook in his essay “Milpa agriculture – a primitive tropical system”.

Indeed, compared to the shining star symbol of Mexican cuisine, the milpa seems to remain completely in the dark, despite being the loving arms that nurtured maize to become what it is. Like bread and butter, the two came together almost from the very start. Walking the lines between the nomadic and domestic, milpa agriculture turned from a form of survival during itinerant times, to a commonplace practice in every local community and home. In it, the three sisters – squash, maize and beans – grow together in a symbiotic relationship, each providing something the other needs and all together creating fertile grounds for many herbs and spices to naturally occur. “Milpa agriculture seems well adapted to the needs of very primitive people, since only a minimum of labour and equipment is required” Cook adds. And though all over Mesoamerica it can be found as the form for different types of crops, it remains a very simple but wise way to provide a family with its food.

Unfortunately, its almost unknown past doesn’t seem to be revving up for a glorious future. Mexico today is covered in vast lands of abandoned soil and many of the young generations know almost nothing of the ancient, wise practice.

Today, almost 80% of Mexico’s number one consumed crop, is imported. The tipping point took place in 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement – otherwise known as NAFTA – was signed, significantly reducing barriers between Mexico and its northern neighbor. As a result, the price for maize significantly dropped. The milpa then became a system that can no longer self sustain. Small scale producers had no reason to keep growing their own corn when cheap cornflour was coming in bulk from the U.S.

Gradually, as the milpa vanished, the varieties of corn began disappearing as well. The guardians of the corn are now finding it very hard to live up to their name: “We used to have hundreds of different colors. Types we didn’t even have a name for” says Juana Marquez Solis as she sits with her cane in one hand, and a burgundy-black cob in the other. The old-time cliche “it’s not what it used to be” seems to apply, especially when you look into those eyes that have been watching the same landscape for the past 93 years. She and her family still have their own milpa which they use to safeguard the many different seeds, but she knows she most definitely doesn’t represent the majority. “Today it’s only very big corn or nothing at all”.

“Mexico is unfortunately taking an American model of agriculture” says Dr Timothy Knab, a professor of anthropology at the Universidad de Las Americas, Puebla . “The government has been subsidizing the same monoculture production from there, here, and it just doesn’t work”. Surely Trump’s recently declared wish for renegotiating NAFTA will be an interesting element added to the Milpa’s soil, but until that unveils, if its practice continues to be neglected very little chances remain for the different varieties to continue self-pollinating. If we want to walk the long line of consequence, this reality leads us directly to the fact that Mexico is now the fastest growing country for obesity in the world. Pulling away from a production centuries-old, meant changing a diet centuries-old – a fact that has had extremely high health implications on the majority of people. Suddenly that popular standardized image of a pale a yellow cob that the rest of the world knows as corn, just might become commonplace upon its future generation of guardians.

This article was first published on Contemporary Food Lab.

Article written by:
Natalie Shafrir
While half of the world’s civilisation owes its existence to rice, the other half thrived on corn.
“The milpa system of agriculture is characterized by the planting of crops in temporary clearings. Instead of keeping the same land under cultivation, new clearings are cut and burned for planting."
“Mexico is unfortunately taking an American model of agriculture”
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