From 1960 to 2002 preeminent theologian, priest, and author Ivan Illich kept a home in Mexico. The first immersion language program, CIDOC (Center for Intercultural Documentation), was developed by Illich. It put Cuernavaca on the international education map.
The fifth anniversary of Illich's death was in 2007. In December of that year friends, colleagues and admirers hosted a weeklong series of talks and seminars about him and his many seminal books. From throughout the world speakers and attendees traveled to Cuernavaca to do homage. I was asked to interpret for those who did not speak/understand Spanish. As a talk about campesinos was to begin I told the group assembled around me in the covered gymnasium of La Salle University that I would refrain from translating the word campesinos because of the derogatory feeling associated with the English equivalent peasants.
A man from India quickly spoke up and said "the only ones who find the word peasants derogatory are those who are themselves not peasants." This left me no alternative but to translate campesinos as peasants.
In the speech that followed the lecturer told us that peasants are the only farmers who actually create energy. We learned that modern high tech northern North American farmers use thirteen calories to create one calorie. In terms of energy efficiency we have regressed from the times of the Mesoamerican peasant farmer. This piqued my curiosity.
Mesoamerican farmers were among the world's grandest peasants. Traditionally they did not and do not have a field for each crop. Instead they farm milpas with a combination of crops growing together in one field. Beans climb up the corn stalks, squash skirts along the ground, chile bushes are interspersed. Some crops deplete while others replenish the soil's nutrients. Few peasant farmers today are as efficient as their ancient Mesoamerican counterparts but they retain deep connections to the land and to the cultivation of corn.
The rainy season, lasting until late September, is only long enough for a milpa to produce a single harvest. Yet Mesoamerican farmers could feed twelve people for a full year with a mere 120 days of work, from planting to harvest. The farmer then had two thirds of the year to dedicate to other pursuits. Eleven other people had the full year. If they believed that building pyramids or other public works were good for the community they would engage in such projects. The milpas generously gave Mesoamericans time to pursue vast public works including but not limited to irrigation projects.
Irrigation produced even more food. We usually think of irrigation as taking water to the field. The Mesoamericans did the opposite. They took the fields to the water, building raised fields in shallow lakes and swamps known as chinampas. Today's grandest surviving chinampa complex is Xochimilco's "floating gardens". The only time these gardens ever floated was while being built. Rafts loaded with soil were positioned where the future island was to be. Other rafts brought more soil to be added to the first raft's load until it sunk and with even more soil an island had been created. Trees planted around the edge of the new island protected it from erosion. Once in place an island was farmed year-round regardless of whether it was rainy season or dry.
Other islands were built with canals between them. Eventually this created a grid of small islands and canals. Though a simple enough concept, it required rulers strong enough to get the whole population of city-states working on large agricultural projects. Once in place, chinampas freed Mesoamerican farmers from dependency on seasonal rainy cycles. By making use of nurseries they grew four and sometimes five harvests per year of plants that normally took 120 days to grow. One chinampa farmer could feed 60 people per year!
Using increasingly sophisticated methods, peasant farmers adapted corn into hundreds of varieties suitable to various climates and environments. World agronomists describe the many native varieties of Mexican corn as an invaluable genetic treasure trove that could be essential to surviving the extreme wet and dry weather associated with today’s climate change. Corn, one of the most widely grown grains in the world, is a key component to the global food supply but only if we can avail ourselves of the seed banks of both drought resistant and mold resistant corn.
In May and June all over Mesoamerica farmers are getting their fields ready for the rainy season. Within a month landscapes will transform from brown to green. The air will again be transparent. Beloved volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztlaccihuatl will be covered with snow. The magical marvel of living in this part of the tropics, where summer is cooler than spring, will set in.
The development of corn birthed a rich Mesoamerican culture. Is it time to look to ancient Mesoamerica for a resurgence of environmentally sustainable agricultural production? Could it be that the hope for the future is the peasant farmer?