Adaptation for millions of farmers but because of

Adaptation of Maize-Beans
(Mesoamerican) Farming System



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Adaptation of
Maize-Beans (Mesoamerican) Farming System varies between the countries,
characterized by the importance of two main crops, maize and beans, which play
a vital role in human diets and culture for local people (Dixon et al., 2001).
Farming system, which occupies 65 million ha, extends over the eight countries,
from southern Mexico to Panama.  Before
Spaniard’s arrival in the 15th century, this geographical bridge
between two continents was highly influenced by local Indian people’s
civilization. Because of history, location and special climate conditions,
Mesoamerica is considered as an origin of agriculture with the high genetic
diversity (DeClerck et
al., 2010).

In the
predominant upland farming system, maize and beans ensure food security for
millions of farmers but because of fragmented small size holdings, low yields
and a high degree of on-farm consumption high poverty is found throughout the
system. Coffee and fruit estates are main off-farm income sources for
small-scale farmers, where they migrate seasonally. A vast majority of
agriculture production in the system are implemented in the rainfed
environment. Contrary, only small part (2 million ha) of agricultural land is
under extensive irrigation, which is mostly controlled by larger big scale
agricultural producers.  The development
of the export-oriented private sector in the last 30 years promoted
diversification of local high-value fruits and vegetables (Dixon et al., 2001).

High soil
erosion and deforestation are main abiotic stresses for the farming system. Because
the agricultural lands are almost fully exploited small holding farmers tend to
utilize marginal hillside and steeper slopes and use unsustainable “Slash and
Burn” practice. Due to unsustainable logging practice deforestation rate
reached to -0.7 percent annually during the last two decades in the past
century, which is one of the highest rates in the world (DeClerck et al., 2010).  

This paper
describes main peculiarities of the system. It provides evidence for different
adaptations and will be focused on a particular location for the farming
system, such as western highlands in Guatemala, which is a typical reflection
of Maize-Beans (Mesoamerican) farming system.



 Figure 1: System Location (Dixon et al., 2001)

delineation of maize-beans (Mesoamerican) farming system encompasses mostly
upland areas from the five southern states of Mexico to Panama Canal.
Mesoamerican mountain chains which play a land bridge role to connect North
America to South America is also a barrier between two major oceans. The narrow
part of the isthmus is 80 km, bordered by the Pacific Ocean from the west and
the Caribbean Sea to the east part (Gordon, 1976). The total area of the system counts 65 million ha
with different latitude and relief which creates a variety of environments,
considered as “one of the original 25 global biodiversity hotspots” (DeClerck et al., 2010). The
most part of agricultural activities are conducted from 400 to 2000 m above sea
level, but there are some exceptions such as Guatemalan highlands, with 3500 m
above sea level. South Mexico part of the system shares the main cultural,
social and agronomic features of the system, but agro-ecologically it adopts
different characteristics, such as poor soil, low temperature, and highly
extended cultivated lands (from 2000 to 3000 m above sea level) (Dixon et al., 2001).


Climate and Crop-Weather Interaction

Framing system encompasses the part of Central
America region spanning latitudes approximately from 8° to 23°N (Tropic of
Cancer) and longitudes from 105 to 77°W. Weather conditions, characterized by a
predominance of dry – most sub-humid zones are seriously affected by different
climatic forces from two surrounding oceans. 
Annual rainfall in the Mesoamerican farming system varies between 1000
to 2000 mm, with the Pacific the drier side and the Caribbean Sea the more
humid. Because of a high variety of environments, the level of precipitation
changes across the system and reaches to 3000 to 5000 mm in Mexico plateau. The
regional climate is designed by dry winters and wet summers, whereby Atlantic
slope experience more rainfall with alternating seasons and higher humidity
than Pacific slopes. Temperature variation during the year is minimal, on
average 4°C and declines from north to a south part of the system (Dixon et al., 2001).  

Mesoamerican farming system experiences a long dry
season from December to April (up to 6 months), which is followed by bimodal
rainfall pattern. The wet period which starts in May and lasts in November is
interrupted by a short dry period from July to August. Rainfall is directly
linked to agricultural activities and can highly influence the length of crops
growing period (Schmidt et al., 2012).

Figure 2:
Typical rainfall pattern in the system (mm) (Schmidt et al., 2012)

The main planting season (Primera) starts in
May-June, as the first rainy season takes place. The maize planted in this
period is harvested in September. Primera is followed by short dry period
Canicula in July-August. After Canicula starts second rainy season (Postrera).
During the Postrera beans are intercropped with grown maize. Sometimes the
second crop of maize is planted during this period. Beans planted during the Postreta
are harvested in November-December. In some humid part of the system, third
planting is started in December-January, which is called Aspante. Maize or
Beans cultivated in this period is harvested in February or March (Schmidt et al., 2012).

A good example how rainfall and climate can affect
cropping decisions is the short dry season Canicula, which can threaten food security
in the region. Very dry Canicula, started early or extended longer can change
the timing of crop planting. By shortening maize-bean growing period it affects
both crops planted in Primera or Postrera seasons. El Niño which is a serious
problem for the Central American corridor, cannot only extend Canicula period,
can decrease precipitation in the main cropping season, Primera.


Natural Resources

Natural resources in the Mesoamerican farming
system such as forest and land experienced high degradation in the last 50
years. Generally, most soils in the farming system are quite fertile, because
of its volcanic origin, but on the steeper slopes where most smallholder
farmers are located soil erosion is the main constraint.  Due to, and not only because of rising
population levels, land fragmentation was increased and the average size of
holdings was decreased. All these caused that pressure on land and water
resources has increased. In the 1980s, FAO estimated that more than 40 percent
of all land in El Salvador and 35 percent of lands in Guatemala was subject to
erosion (Dixon et al., 2001).
Depletion of soil organic matter is highly accelerated by shorter fallow
periods. Because the land is getting scarce farmers are not giving soils enough
time to regenerate its structure and fertility.

Even though the deforestation rate is lower today
than fifty years ago, it is still high. Only from 1990 to 1995 because of
unsustainable logging practice 450 000 hectares of forest was destroyed in the
system (DeClerck et al.,
2010). Thanks to some local and regional conservation programs about 11 percent
of Mesoamerican territory (some parts out of the system) is under protection
such as National parks.  Biodiversity was
also threatened by large monoculture and export-oriented farms in the system.
Export crops which require large-scale estates have important consequences for
the Mesoamerican biological corridor.

Table 1: Forest cover by year and country (1,000 ha)







Costa Rica






El Salvador




































Table 1: (Carr et al., 2006)


Widespread deforestation and environmental
degradation in the hillside Mesoamerican farming system was mainly caused by
inappropriate Slash and Burn practice (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2016). In the most areas of the world slash and burn cultivation
of maize, beans and other crops was appeared sustainable when population
density was stable. But because of rapid population growth, high land
fragmentation and utilization of marginal lands, forests failed to regenerate,
slope erosion increased and finally system broke down. 

Figure 3: Mulch and leaving trees to prevent
soil erosion

response to unsustainable slash and burn practice farmers in Honduras adapted
“Slash and Mulch” technique which can reduce soil erosion and deforestation
process. Instead of burning forests beans or sorghums are planted directly in
the naturally regenerated forest, which is later pruned. After cutting thinning,
leaves and branches are disseminated on the soil which creates a layer of
mulch. Fruit trees, fuel woods and other high-value timber are left to grow.
Unlike traditional relay cropping system, in Slash and Mulch practice maize is
planted later, after beans or sorghums are harvested. Because mulch can slow
down maize seedlings emergence and later development maize is not pioneer crop
here.   By pruning maize and beans are
getting enough sunlight, while leaves, thinnings and other resides insure soil
untilled and moisture (FAO, 2016).



The importance of Maize-Beans in the

In Mesoamerica farming system the most
consumed crops are maize and beans. However, tree fruits, vegetables, coffee
and other cash crops are also cultivated across the system.

There are three main maize-bean cropping
patterns widely used in the Mesoamerican farming system. First is intercropping
when maize and bean are planted at the same time together (in the same or
different rows). Second is relay cropping when they are planted in a different
time but at least once their growing period is overlapped and the last one is a
rotation when one crop is planted after the first one is harvested (FAO, 2016).

Unlike big monoculture fields which gives
scale effect for big producers intercropping strategies are adopted by small
holding farmers in the system. When maize and beans are grown in monoculture
the yields are higher than those of maize and beans intercropped, but by
intercropping farmers can reduce the costs of production. Moreover,
intercropping affects more maize yields rather than beans, which are four times
more expensive to sell than maize and guarantees higher and more stable incomes
for farmers. 


Figure 4: The Ancient Three Sisters Method

Archeological evidence
showed that mixed cropping system of Maize and beans with third traditional
crop squash had started more than 5000 years ago in this territory. “Three
sisters” (maize, bean and squash) together creates the symbiotic relationship
which benefits in different ways (Gordon,
1976). The maize
provides stalk for beans, which helps bean to climb and catch the sunlight. The
bean itself can supply nitrogen in the soil, which is consumed by maize. The squash
as creepers maintenance soil moisture and reduce soil erosion by covering the
ground with big leafs, also it competes for the weeds around the maize and
beans.  The Three sisters can
nutritionally provide healthy foodstuff for a human. Maize is rich in
carbohydrates while beans furnish protein component other required amino acids.
This two crops with squash which is the source of Vitamin A creates a
well-balanced diet for local people (Food and Agriculture Organization, 1992).   

And finally, this kind of intercropping
plays the role of insurance. In the case, if one crop fails, the farmer can get
another one.


in non-traditional agricultural sector

Existing trends, which aims to benefit
smallholder farmers in the Mesoamerican farming system are followings:
exploitation of new marginal lands, intensification and diversification (Dixon et al., 2001). Because of limited land resources, only steeper slopes are
available for exploitation, which can give only short-term gains to farmers.
Moreover, in the long run, soil erosion, climate variability and flooding can
risk people living in the region.  The
second trend, intensification of production, cannot guarantee food security in
the region. While some increase in maize and bean production are predicted in
the system, trade liberalization and falling international prices can only
limit the benefits to the farmers.

Diversification as an alternate source of
income generation for Mesoamerican farmers started in the 1970s in horticulture
and fruit production.  Adaptation of this
strategy by a large number of indigenous people can play a vital role to eradicate
extreme poverty which is strongly correlated to the percentage of local
indigenous people in the maize-bean farming system.

In the early 1970s, U.S. started looking
for alternative sources of snow peas to meet the increased demand (Dixon et al., 2001). Because of agronomically well-suited regions, American
entrepreneurs started snow pea production in Guatemala. Problems connected to
obtaining the land from the local population, pushed big corporations to start
collecting snow peas from small independent producers. After 10 years, small
producers directly connected to exporters and bypass the agribusinesses.  Local population from Guatemala, most of whom
did not even speak in Spanish, managed to earn extremely high returns by
economizing labour and land cost, compared to big corporations. Furthermore,
some farmers who had access to irrigation started cultivating broccoli, which
also became a high return export-oriented product. 

By setting appropriate legislative and policy
frameworks, the government in collaboration with small producers, exporters and
non-governmental export support organizations (GEXPRONT) played an important
role to boost non-traditional sectors in Guatemala. By 1996, more than 21000
indigenous households were involved in snow pea and broccoli production. It was
estimated that from Guatemalan annually was exported about 55 million dollars
valued snow peas to U.S. market. Indigenous families who successfully managed
production diversification could earn from 1400$ to 2500$ per year (Dixon et al., 2001).


The typical example of Maize Beans
(Mesoamerican) farming system

Evaluation of western highland
livelihoods in Guatemala highlights some main characteristics of Maize Beans
(Mesoamerican) farming system and clearly demonstrates the trends and issues
throughout the system.

Extensive poverty, which is predominated
in the system with the regional average 60 percent, is reaching 80 percent in
western highlands of Guatemala. Malnutrition is a serious problem for local
indigenous population, especially before harvests (Dixon et al., 2001). Because of the armed conflict decades ago, public
infrastructure is rare and sometimes completely absent in the regions. Distance
from administrative centres, poor infrastructure and no year-round access by
road limit the availability of healthcare, education and even marketplaces for
many indigenous communities. 

A typical household in Guatemala highlands
controls about 3.5 hectares of land. More than half of it is dedicated to maize
and bean production. A large part of cultivated maize and beans are consumed on
a household level, and only in minor cases surplus is sold on the market.
Sometimes maize and beans are cultivated more than 2 times in the year, depends
on the climate and rainy seasons. Main cash crop for local people is coffee,
which occupies 0.5 hectares of traditional owned land. Because of coffee price
high variability, food insecurity is present in the region.  Diversification of production in high
demanded export-oriented vegetables such as snow peas and broccolis created a
new source of income generation for some smallholder farms. Well suited
agronomic and climatic conditions in Guatemala offered snow pea harvesting
season from October to May, which is snow peas shortage period in export

5: Seasonal cropping/feeding calendar in Guatemalan

Figure 6: Diagram of the typical farm
system of Guatemalan highlands

An important source of income during the
pre-harvest period is seasonal migration or remittances from abroad. Income
generated from wage labour in coffee estates is sometimes the main source to
fund children’s education. Some wealthy households in Guatemalan highlands own
cows for milk and draught power and some chickens. Also, proteins gained from
meat and milk consumption can supplement local people’s diet. Because the fertilizers
are expensive and most farmers have not accessed, the manure provided by
animals is the important source to improve soil composition. Compost produced
by crop residues and manure are mostly supplied to cash crops, such as coffee
and vegetables. On another hand, livestock is kept on unimproved pastures or feed by the maize straw and other byproducts.
Latter is very important during the dry season when pastures are in a poor condition (Barber, 1999).

Depending on the given example of Guatemalan
highland livelihoods, can be deducted that only maize and bean crops, which
defines the name of the Mesoamerican farming system, cannot guarantee food
security. Diversification in horticulture, off-farm activities and crop-animal
interactions eventually benefits stallholder farmers in the region.  



Analyzing maize-Beans (Mesoamerican)
farming systems showed that adaptation of the system varies between the
countries and regions, but there are some main characteristics which design the
picture of the farming system. Moreover, there are some general future development
strategies, which aims to facilitate poverty reduction in the maize–beans
farming system and which requires big attention from government sector (Dixon et al., 2001).

First one is diversification, which started
in the 1970s and should be promoted in the future. Guatemalan example clearly
demonstrates the importance of diversification in non-traditional sectors. While
this process was started by the private sector, the crucial role remains for
the government. Fair competition in the markets, low barriers, supporting
farmers association, training and other extension services should be ensured by
the government sector. Moreover, an undeveloped land market which delays the
process of land transfer from non-successful to successful farmers should be

The second strategy implies supporting
off-farm employment in the region.  Maize
and beans produced in the farming system can ensure sufficient foodstuff for
local people, but because of the limited access to off-farm income sources,
they sell some parts of crops, which creates secondary malnutrition. By modernizing
infrastructure, training and tax benefits government should promote tourism
which offers some source of income for the local population.

An exit strategy is last chance for
farmers who cannot support diversification or off-farm employment. Unfortunately,
past experiences show that this way of the transition process is hardest
adopted by poorest segments of the population. Even this exodus strategy
requires some source of finance to ensure migrants successfully absorption at
the final destination. Payments to abandon sub-marginal lands, land market, vocational
training for migrants and other incentives should be developed by the government,
for the successful transitional process.