A milpa is an agro-nutritional system invented by Mesoamerica’s ancient inhabitants. Traditionally the plants that make it up are corn, beans and squash, which are known as the “Mesoamerican Triad.”
In accordance with its knowledge and traditions, each region has left its particular stamp on species selection and husbandry; the elaboration of tools with which to cultivate the milpa; how its products are processed; and the social organization surrounding the its planting and management.
In the milpa, each plant plays an ecological role. For example, the bean-corn relationship is complementary since beans are a nitrogen-fixing plant that brings this nutrient to the corn; at the same time, corn offers support to bean plants that will climb its stalks as they grow. The crops are also complementary because of the nutrients they provide, particularly amino acids which, when they come together in a traditional diet, help maintain balanced nutrition. Squash sown in the milpa between corn and beans limits weed growth and the shade its large leaves provide by resting on the ground helps maintain soil humidity; consumption of squash and pumpkin seeds, shoots, flowers and tender or ripened fruits is a source of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and fiber. Chiles allow for enhanced exploitation of the space between plants, repel certain insects and provide vitamins.
Other peripheral foods and plants are found within the milpa complex. Cacti and maguey agaves, like retaining walls, help avoid soil erosion, establish limits and serve to protect crops from certain predators. Milpas are also home to specific insects, birds and reptiles, who cohabit with mammals, and use these variegated plantations as a refuge from their own natural predators or as a place to store food.
The milpa also represents a “best practice” for the protection, development, conservation and exploitation of traditional knowledge as a unique means of helping conserve each region’s agricultural and sylvan biodiversity. Yet despite being one of agriculture’s most patently optimal methods, the milpa is disappearing; as time passes, there are fewer people who plant them and safeguard the traditional knowledge associated with them—knowledge that was developed and handed down over the course of centuries.


Mushroom and quelite herb chileatole
Milpa tlatonile
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