case studies banner
case studies


farmers in milpa
"Milpa" Agroecosystems in Yucatan, Mexico
Overview Milpa in Yucatan is an intercropping system of corn, beans, lima beans and squash that is managed through slash and burn with fallow periods and the use of mulch.
Scale Subsistence agriculture, region and corn-growing community
Location Yucatan, Mexico, 19.2- 21.6N, 87.5- 90.5W
Elevation 0 to 150 meters
Climate Tropical savanna climate; with wet and dry seasons (Aw- G.T. Trewartha)
Agricultural Region Rudimental Sedentary Cultivation - (D); Plantation Agriculture - (G)
Population Density <25 persons / square kilometer
Principal Crops Corn (Zea mays), Common Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), Lima Bean (Phaseolus lunatus), Squash (Cucurbita spp), Chile Pepper (Capsicum spp)
Domestic Animals none
Soils Rendolls (M3) formed on highly calcareous parent materials (Rendzina) [Karst, Litosoles y Rendzina]
Natural Vegetation Broadleaf deciduous, shrubform, minimum height 3 feet (Ds)
Ecoregion Savanna Province (Tr1)
Basic Principles addressed Minimize Toxics, Conserve Resources, Manage Ecological Relationships, Diversify, Empower People
Page Author and Date Luis M. Arias R. with information from IPGRI-IDRC-CINVESTAV Merida, 1999.



The "Milpa" system is a traditional intercropping system of corn, lima bean, common bean, and squash. Present day Mayan farmers cultivate this intercropping system through the practice of slash and burn together with small plots of other vegetable crops such as chiles. Corn, beans, squash and chile from "milpa" systems are produced as well as consumed locally, and constitute the essential staple crops for local and regional food consumption needs. The milpa cycle involves two years of cultivation and eight years of fallow, or secondary growth, to allow for natural regeneration of vegetation. As long as this rotation continues without shortening fallow periods, the system can be sustained indefinitely. 

lessons learned

The system of rotation of agricultural plots in the slash-and-burn system allows for the regeneration of secondary vegetation; creating ecosystems that are favorable for traditional forest management and subsistence hunting. Nevertheless, demographic pressures and rural development policies are promoting the increased use of agrochemicals and have reduced the agricultural productivity of this system. Comparisons of genetic diversity of crops grown by communities practicing milpa versus those that have modernized agriculture with mechanization, agrochemicals and improved varieties show that traditional milpa systems conserve genetic diversity resources in situ while agricultural modernization erodes them. 

principles illustrated

Minimize Toxics

Milpa systems make minimal use of toxic agrochemicals that are now promoted by government development programs.

Conserve Resources

Traditional landraces are sustained by Milpa systems, conserving crop genetic resources.

Manage Ecological Relationships

The intercropping association of corn-beans-squash increases biological N fixation and the biological control of insects and disease. Fallow and mulching periods in Milpa systems are adjusted to manage productive potential, with longer fallow periods increasing biomass production and nutrient recycling that boosts crop yields after cultivating fallow areas.


Crop genetic diversity is high in communities using milpa systems, with more than fifteen local varieties of corn, five of bean, three of squash and six of chile. Fallow areas of the milpa are habitat for birds and small mammals, conserving natural biodiversity and creating diverse landscapes. Milpa systems provide for the varied needs of entire farming community, including subsistence food crops, forage crops (squash pulp), rural construction materials, fuel-wood, flowering plants and secondary vegetation for apiculture, and animals that may be hunted.

Empower People

Using traditional Milpa systems conserves local knowledge, enables farmers to control their genetic resources, and provides for local subsistence food production.  


milpa plot

Milpa plot


Related Publications:

Arias, L. 1995, La milpa en Yaxcaba, Yucatan, en: Hernandez X., E. Bello y S. Levy, La produccion de la milpa en Yucatan, Colegio de Postgraduados, Montecillos, Mexico.