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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mayan Farmers Defend Slash and Burn

Air Date: Week of

Matt Binder reports from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on the efforts of some Mayan farmers to preserve their centuries-old method of rotating, slash-and-burn agriculture. The Mexican government wants to convert much of the Yucatan jungle into conventional modern cropland, but the Maya say their traditional method serves their needs better while protecting the forest.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

In the struggle to feed booming populations and attract export income, developing countries have increasingly turned to large-scale, mechanized farming. In many cases, yields have gone up, but often at a cost -- to the soil, to water supplies, to wildlife, and to the social fabric.

Now, in the search for what's become known as sustainable agriculture, many agronomists, ecologists, and farmers are looking to old farming methods. Born of the particular ecology of a particular region, these can sometimes be more productive, and less damaging, than modern techniques.

But not everyone agrees. In Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, the government wants Mayan farmers to switch from traditional jungle farming to modern cash crops. But the old ways are dying hard, and according to researchers, with good reason. Matt Binder reports.

(Fade up crickets)

BINDER: Things have remained pretty much the same in the remote parts of the Yucatan, since the time of the great Mayan civilization. The jungle is just as impenetrable; the low growl of jaguar and howler monkeys just as disturbing. For the people here, life doesn't appear to have changed much either. The local farmers still speak the Mayan language, and most of them still use ancient Mayan agricultural techniques. But in some parts of the Yucatan, the past is starting to give way to the present.

(Sound of chainsaw)

The Mexican Government wants higher yields from the region to feed the booming tourist industry centered in Cancun. So they're clear-cutting forests all over the Yucatan to encourage mechanized farming. The Mayan farmers are hopeful that the new methods will bring prosperity, but so far, they say, things have gotten worse rather than better.

Fernando Cancowo is the comisario , or leader, of a small village in northwestern Yucatan, near where the government recently clear-cut three square miles of forest.

CANCOWO (translated): Before the deforestation, we could go out and find animals to hunt, just a hundred meters away from the village. Peccaries, wild turkeys, deer -- now to find meat we have to go miles away. Firewood and wood for building houses is harder to get too. And so are wild fruits. I also think the cutting down of the forest has changed the weather, because there's now less rain here than there was before.

BINDER: Before the government tractors and chainsaws came, farmers in the Yucatan used the ancient Mayan agricultural technique called milpa farming. It's a type of slash-and-burn agriculture that was suited to the climate and poor soil conditions of the area. To make a milpa, a farmer cuts down all the useless trees and brush on a plot of land, lets it dry, and sets in on fire on a windy day.

The fast-burning fire doesn't kill the trees that are left standing, and the fire's ash adds nutrients to the soil. The farmer uses this field for two years, then lets it lie fallow for ten years to regain its fertility. The milpa technique leaves most of the forest around the village intact. The land that is cleared is highly productive while it's farmed. The ancient Maya used milpa to feed a highly developed civilization with a population almost four times as large as the present-day Yucatan. James Callaghan is an archaeologist who grew up in the Yucatan, and is now the director of the Institute of Mayan Culture at the University of Mayab in Merida.

CALLAGHAN: Here in the peninsula, the milpa form of agriculture still is to a great extent the most efficient, time-proven method of agriculture that has provided for the Maya for many centuries.

BINDER: But the Mexican government has less faith than Callaghan in the old methods, and they're encouraging a switch from subsistence to export farming. Guillermo Ramos is an agricultural counselor to the Mexican government.

RAMOS: You have to modernize it, you have to adapt your production to the present conditions of the market, and allow these people to participate in this system and obtain a higher income and live better, with all their needs satisfied, you know?

BINDER: But mechanized farming would require cutting down most of the trees surrounding the village, and Kathleen Truman, an anthropologist and the director of the Maya Sustainability Project in Merida, says the forest already meets most of the Mayas' needs.

TRUMAN: The forest, in fact, is more like a supermarket, a shopping mall, in which he can go out and get materials to build his house, he can get animal resources, animal protein, medicinal plants, ornamentals -- all kinds of resources that are not available if the forest is completely cleared away.

BINDER: Kathleen Truman believes that the ancient milpa system, honed over centuries of experience, is still the best agricultural option for the Maya, and for the ecology of the Yucatan, although she does think the Mexican government could help improve productivity by providing such things as modern seed stocks. Fernando Cancowo meanwhile says he's open to whatever techniques work, although no one's shown him anything yet that works better than the milpa of his forefathers.

CANCOWO (translated): My grandfather died recently. He was 113 years old. His death made me realize my identity as a Mayan and what that means. I like to do things the modern way, but there's always problems. I think I'll continue to farm my grandfather's way until I see something better for my village.

BINDER: For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Binder.



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