The Controversy

Myth #1: Slash-and-burn destroys the habitat

Maya architecture next to trees
Burning takes place on a cool day with minimal wind and a meter wide clearing to ensure the fire is controlled.

An imperialist view depicted slash-and-burn as a barbaric practice that destroys the ecosystem. Slash-and-burn was perceived as a single action, not a carefully monitored multi-step process that advances forest growth. 

Economic botanists, agroecologists, and ecological restorationists now recognize the importance of this method for sustainable agroforestry and managing local biodiversity.

Myth #2: Rocky Soil is Undesirable

Maya architecture next to trees
The US Department of Agriculture classification shows all soils around the major ancient Maya center Tikal as Not Cultivable

Western cultivation systems, in an effort to produce large yields for maximizing profits, have centered on plowing believing the deep soil were needed for healthy agricultural fields. Thus, they considered rocky soil undesirable and assumed that the ‘primitive’ Maya cultivation system could not support large populations without destroying the shallow tropical soils (see figure above).

This view fails to appreciate the productive potential of the rocky soils when managed with traditional forest gardening methods. Practices like letting organic material accumulate can increase soil fertility and friability to invite new plant growth.

Myth #3: Milpa is just a cornfield

Maya architecture next to trees
Corn, chile, chaya, and ciricote growing in this milpa

Unlike the mono-crop trend of Western agriculture, plants are intentionally grown around the corn in the poly-culture milpa cycle. Underneath growing corn can lie 30 different plant species and close to 100 annual plants. Some are used as pest attractors to redirect the insect from edible growth, while the breaking of the corn stock channels waters to the growth below when it rains. Similar to other plants that are considered “weeds”, the Maya invites these necessary plants to avoid utilizing damaging pesticides.

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