Polycultures and conservation: Three Sisters and 120 sweet potatoes. 


The British newspaper The Guardian highlights the work of Mexican farmers in the Yucatan region to preserve and use pre-Hispanic methods of agriculture, whose fundamentals are aligned with biomimicry (Imitation, re-connection with nature and an ethic that respects the environment). Beyond promoting sustainable food production milpa is a resource management system that has been practiced by Mayans for millennia. The project called Mestiza de Indias wants to revitalize these practices with the aim of generating an alternative on the peninsula of Yucatan, which has been adversely affected by national and international tourism, bringing among other things, high levels of plastic pollution.

The project farms use the combination of crops (polycultures) called the three sisters: Beans that act as a natural fertilizer, squash that maintains soil moisture allowing corn to grow. But this is only one stage of four that take place in a cycle of approximately 25 years and that involve other participants in the ecology of the place:

  • Stage 1: Corn, squash and beans are grown. Amongst the low shade produced by maize, tubers, grasses and other plants are also cultivated to ward off pests from the main crops.
  • Stage 2: Fast-producing fruit trees such as plantains, bananas, and papaya are cultivated among the three sisters, producing fruits within a year. Other slow-producing fruit trees are also cultivated, such as mangoes, avocados and guavas.
  • Stage 3: Slow-bearing fruit trees grow and produce fruit, providing new shade and blocking sunlight. Within these, trees such as cedar are planted so that they can mature for decades to come
  • Stage 4: The forest garden is transformed into a timber forest with excellent management. As these timber grow, they exceed the height of the fruit trees and begin to form a structure similar to the forest that had initially been cut to create the necessary space for stage 1.     

In this way, the system can produce different sources of food for the community. The farm is made up of 220 hectares, of which 80% is still jungle. In the words of the owners, “one of the biggest missions is to increase the visibility of ingredients among chefs while giving people local access to organic food".   

This system has the following principles of life described by biomimicry:  

  • Replicate strategies that work: Replicate how a forest is built over time.
  • Incorporates diversity: In the four stages different organisms are included.
  • Takes advantage of cyclical processes makes use of the cycles of water, nitrogen and carbon.
  • Uses locally available materials.
  • Cultivate cooperative relationships: The three sisters, fruit and timber trees cooperate with each other for their growth.
  • It is built from the bottom up: The construction of the forest is a natural process that begins with the selective planting of trees and fruit trees that grow progressively in stages.
  • Recycles materials: The residues of some organisms become raw materials for others.
  • Use low-energy processes: Instead of having to add fertilizers and pesticides to crops brought from far away, polyculture does not require their addition, or at least to a much lesser extent.
  • Decomposes products into benign constituents: As trees decompose, they produce nutrients for new members of the community or ecosystem.            

Finally, the project has recovered native potato species that are in danger of extinction. In total, 120 varieties have been cultivated for feeding the farm and for sale to different restaurants.

Source: The Guardian

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