How It Works

Different From Western Crops

Maya Forest Gardeners use a different style of a crop than Westerners. Instead of large fields growing only one item like corn, a milpa is a smaller plot of land with a large variety of crops. 

Maya architecture next to trees
Industrial plowed field on the left shows soil damage. But the Maya used agricultural practices centered on the milpa cycle on the right, which leads to healthier soil, water conversation, and many more benefits.

There are many benefits of this highly diverse farming style such as reduced erosion. The trees in the milpa provide shade to the soil, preventing it from drying up. While the tree roots hold the soil together against winds and gravity on slopes and hills. To learn more about the benefits, read this page.

Maya architecture next to trees
Tree holding on slope nearby a Maya architecture

Alfonso Tzul, a Maya Forest Gardener, said, “I have never seen a milpa with erosion and I have never seen a plowed field that doesn’t have erosion.”

What is the Milpa Cycle?

a graph that shows the full milpa cycle from forest garden to milpa and to forest garden again
pictures showing infield home garden to preparing for annuals to growing annuals, harvest,
Milpa Cycle in action

The Maya use a sustainable method of farming and managing the Maya forest called the milpa cycle. The cycle spans approximately 20 years and involves the skilled selection of plant species to sustain the Maya Forest as one of the most biodiverse places in the world.

The milpa cycle transforms in stages, and grows back into a closed canopy forest at the end. At least two-thirds of the milpa is part of the forest at any point of the Milpa cycle to conserve the Maya Forest.

LIDAR Base Map of El Pilar showing settlement and landscape use of the milpa cycle
Imagining the milpa cycle around settlements

Maya forest gardeners traditionally have more than one milpa each at different stages cycling at the same time. This maximizes the multifunctionality of the landscape and creates a mosaic-like crop rotation that ensures diversity in product yields. 

Dominant Plants Shaping the Forest

After millennia of Maya occupying the Maya forest, there are 20 trees that economic botanists recognize as dominating the well-drained uplands. These plants often cover more than three-quarters of the area! These dominant plants occurred where the ancient Maya lived and are all useful because the Maya selected plants they needed while creating the Maya forest garden.

Since these trees, palms, and shrubs greatly differ in appearances, we included the flower portion along with their Maya and English Names for easy comparison.

Illustrations by Julia Beery


Pollinated by Bees
Used for Fish Poison


Pollinated by Insects
Used for Food


Pollination by Bats
Used for Food


Pollination by Bees
Used for Food


Pollinated by Insects
Used for Construction

Wild Mamey

Pollinated by Moths
Used for Food

Tourist Tree

Pollinated by Bees
Used for Medicine

Box Ya
Black Zapote

Pollinated by Insects
Used for Latex