Building on maize milpa at Texcoco's two agroecological frontiers
Academic project Harvard Graduate School of Design
What is a Lake? LA Option Studio / Fall 2022
Advised by: Montserrat Bonvehi-Rosich
Project partner: Ruijie Liu
Maize was initially domesticated in Mexico about 9,000 years ago and continues to form a critical part of Mexican
indigenous culture, sustenance, and crop gene development. Milpa, a traditional Mesoamerican sisterhood of crops
originally consisting of maize, bean, and squash, is the hallmark of agricultural productivity, ecological
diversity, and sociocultural flourishing. Despite their significance, native maize landraces and milpa have been
threatened by the heavy industrialization of agricultural landscapes since the Green Revolution in the 1940s. In a predicament seen
across the globe, traditional agriculture and its supporting habitats are being threatened by worsening climatic
and soil conditions. Texcoco, a city region just northeast of Mexico City, lies within the Basin of Mexico and
consists of ejido lands that are cultivated by local peasant farmers. Texcoco's productive vitality is buckling
under climate change, soil degradation, and monocultures. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
(CIMMYT) is located in Texcoco and was founded to apply science and technology to agriculture through the creation
of transgenic maize seeds used for monocultures. CIMMYT has yet to fulfill its promises to sustainability and
local farmers in its ambit of Texcoco.
By building on the teachings of milpa, this project aims to conserve maize landraces and revitalize soils by
reintroducing diversity within living productive systems. We analyzed the regions' climatic, topographical, and
underlying soil conditions. We determined two agroecological "extremes" to explore for Texcoco's
productive future: the salty lowland and the degraded upland.
In the lowland hinterland, we propose strategies comprising the AGRO-WAYS, which diversify the soil productivity
along existing lines of ejidatarios' commutes. Salt-tolerated milpa palettes consisting of maize,
quelites (edible weeds), Tamarix, and halophytes work in concert with the micro- and macro-soil and topography
conditions. These strategies are implemented along the ejidos' linear roads and edges,
and ejidatarios may initiate the strategies through coordinated land preparation. At key nodes along the
AGRO-WAYS, an array of social spaces are arranged for communal activities, equipment sharing, and knowledge
exchange. In Texcoco's upland hinterland, the soil is fertile yet degrading due to forest fragmentation and
erosion. We propose AGRO-FORESTS, a patchwork of productive landscapes to nurture and build up the soil by
expanding existing milpa systems with trees and crop species. AGRO-FOREST strategies are comprised of terraced
agroforestry, multi-layered forests, highland agroforestry, and highland silvopasture for selected sites of
abandonment, overgrazing, or underuse.
Across the lowland to upland transect, ejidatarios, CIMMYT researchers, and other scientists build long-term partnerships that shift agro-technological
priorities toward soil health and complementing indigenous knowledge. In this imagined "future," traditional knowledge of the soils and lands reign, and technological solutions and seed hybridization of CIMMYT only serve to monitor and accomodate to those practices.
The AGRO-WAYS and AGRO-FORESTS methods thread throughout the common ejido land to build off the collective power of soil rehabilitation and sociocultural milpa practices for generations to come.