Our Renewable Energy and Travel Blog's Profile Picture

Our Renewable Energy and Travel Blog

Loading Map...

Working the Milpa with the Zapatistas

Written on: Friday May 16th, 2008

A journal entry from: North America in our Camper Van!

The last community that we would visit during the delegation was called Lucio Barrios. We left early Friday morning and drove about an hour north-east from San Cristobal to this remote community located in a beautiful river valley.

At the end of a rough dirt road, we pulled into a large yard, where several buildings were grouped together. I knew we had arrived by the colorful murals, so characteristic of a Zapatista community. One building was the primary school and another housed the students and the Education promoters, many of whom lived here as their homes were too far away to commute daily. Inside another building was a simple kitchen and cooking area.

A very large rectangular building stood at the back end of the yard. The concrete steps leading up to the wrap-around veranda were collapsed and overgrown. Thick circular columns on the veranda supported faded crumbling archways and large chunks of plaster had fallen off the exterior walls exposing the brick sub-structure. Missing bricks allowed for one peer inside, but there was no need to use these holes as the many entrances were all door-less. The first room I entered was empty except for an old fireplace in one corner and some rotten beams and broken concrete blocks strewn across the floor. Another room had been cleared out and stacked in the corner were two wheelbarrows and a pile of concrete mix. I wandered through the other rooms thinking about how despite of its current appearance, this building was once a very grand home.

I learnt from Peter and Susan that this structure was once a Hacienda, the home of a very wealthy rancher who owned most of the land in the area, including much of the fertile valley. In 1994, during the uprising, this land was confiscated by the Zapatista Army, who demanded it be redistributed to the indigenous farmers from the area. The Mexican government paid off the wealthy rancher and since then, 11 families have owned and farmed the land communally.

Now, with a grant from the Paul Mann Memorial Bond the community was banding together to refurbish the hacienda and built a secondary school. All of the labour to turn this dishevelled building into an educational center will be provided by the community members. Today was the construction kick-off and roughly 50 men from the community were showing up for the first day of work. Annette and Rob got right in there, tearing apart walls, cleaning up debris and starting the re-construction process. With my still queasy stomach I opted to take a few photos instead.

A film crew from Mexico City was also present, they would be putting together a short documentary about the day and about the Paul Mann Memorial High school to help with future fundraising events. If you are interested in donating or helping out check out the Schools for Chiapas website.


After spending the night camped in Lucio Barrios, I was asked in the morning if I would like to spend some time with the Zapatista students and help out in their Milpa. The Milpa is an ancient agricultural system that the indigenous people have used for thousands of years. Corn, beans and squash, which are the staples of their diet, are grown together on the same field, sort of a tri-culture (instead of monoculture). I immediately jumped on the opportunity and was given a hoe and the task of cutting back the invasive weeds and turning them into mulch. Check out our video:

The Milpa is actually a great example of one aspect of permaculture, and is sometimes referred to as the ?Three Sisters?. In permaculture, taking advantage of natural symbiotic relationships is very important. The Three Sisters incorporates corn, beans and squash planted next to each other and in some ways the sum of the three of them makes more than the individuals. Corn is a tall stocky plant that requires nitrogen while beans are nitrogen affixing requiring a stock to climb, this means that the beans feed the corn and the corn gives support to the beans. To minimize weeding (because no one likes this job) you plant a broad leaf plant such as squash to provide ground cover preventing weeds and preserving soil moisture.

While this system is not well adapted to industrial agricultural machines it also does not require the intense inputs of nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides and fossil fuels. The students Milpa produces annually 3-4 tonnes of corn, an equivalent amount of beans and a plethora of squash. The students tend this field, learn farming practices and supply the majority of their own food.


From Thea Avis on Jul 8th, 2008

I'm painting the front of the church facade (all that's left). Annette printed off a copy for me and I'm almost done. looks okay.