Maize Politics and Maya Farmers’ Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Yucatán, 1450–1600

Abstract

Historical and political context is essential for evaluating the long-term sustainability of any agroecosystem. Over the past several centuries in Yucatán, Mexico, Maya farmers have practiced milpa (i.e., slash-and-burn) agriculture in ways that are arguably both sustainable and unsustainable depending on whether political leaders created institutional support for farmers to implement a full range of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). To investigate this relationship between political authority and TEK, I trace changes in maize tribute collection before and after contact between Spaniards and Maya. I argue that late pre-contact milpa agriculture was sustainable in part because political leaders supported institutions that allowed farmers to integrate a wider range of TEK. Colonial authorities, however, dismantled these institutions and thereby undermined the sustainability of milpa agriculture. Confronting these lasting Colonial legacies is a critical part of a larger interdisciplinary effort to expand sustainability discourse and promote environmentally just food systems.

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  1. 1.

    While encounters between Maya and Spaniards may have started as early as 1502, the sustained presence of Spanish settlers in the northern lowlands began in the early 1530s. I use 1550 as a “cutoff” for this period as this was when the Spanish Crown began a more aggressive program of intervention in Colonial affairs in Yucatán (Chamberlain 1948; Clendinnen 1988; Farriss 1984).

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Acknowledgments

Representatives from Sand Hill Preservation Center, Burpee Seeds and Plants, and Victory Seeds supplied information on heirloom maize mass and volume. My gratitude goes to Joyce Marcus, for guiding my earliest work with the Tax List of 1549; to Marcela Benítez, for assisting with statistical analysis on an earlier version of this paper; and to Julie K. Wesp, for providing valuable conceptual and editorial feedback. I was supported by a Dissertation Fellowship from the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies at the University of Michigan during the preparation of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Chelsea Fisher.

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The author declares that she has no conflict of interest. This paper does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by the author. Funding from the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies (University of Michigan) provided financial support during preparation of this paper.

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Fisher, C. Maize Politics and Maya Farmers’ Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Yucatán, 1450–1600. Hum Ecol 48, 33–45 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-020-00134-8

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Keywords

  • Milpa agriculture
  • Maize
  • Traditional ecological knowledge
  • Maya
  • Colonialism
  • Environmental history
  • Yucatán
  • Mexico