Livestock Research for Rural Development 9 (5) 1997

Citation of this paper

The sub-urban agro-ecosystem of maize production in the south-east hills of Mexico City as an important cultural and sustainable crop resource


H Losada, J Vieyra, J Rangel, A Zamudio y G Martínez

Animal Production Systems Area. Departament of Biology of Reproduction. Division of Biological and Health Sciences, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Iztapalapa. Av. Michoacán y la Purisíma. Col. Vicentina. Iztapalpa. CP 09340. México DF


A survey was carried out in order to discover the social, technical, economic and cultural mediums of maize production as practised on the terraces of the region of Xochimilco. The results showed that all the producers within the study area cultivated temporal native maize species in family plots located next to the homestead with the objective of meeting the nutritional needs of themselves and their animals. The various labours involved in the preparation of the soil, cultivation and harvesting were carried out, in the case of the majority of the producers (95%), using animal and human traction. The primary source of fertiliser was cattle manure. The maize grains were reported to be used in the preparation of staple foods in the local cuisine. A significant percentage of producers (45%) considered the seeds to have magical 'powers', able to secure a good harvest. The importance of maize in this terraced zone is discussed in terms of its role within the context of regional sustainability.

Key words: Maize, sustainability, local resources


Maize is a Graminaceae which was first domesticated in Mexico, and constitutes a principal nutritional source for the human and animal population of the country (Rojas 1983). In the terraced zone in the south of the city of Mexico, maize has persisted throughout time as a crop of major importance. Its presence is subject, to a greater degree, to cultural factors rather than economic ones, and thus is associated with the concepts of social welfare as part of the proposal of sustainability. In view of the fact that the main part of maize production in this zone is carried out under a regime of sustenance production (Anon 1979), it was considered important to carry out a study which would allow an expansion of existing knowledge of its production and uses.


The physical characteristics of the area studied have been previously described (Losada et al 1996a). The process of studying the system was carried out by means of direct interviews with farmers producing maize for sustenance use, focussing on an examination of social, technological and cultural factors in which production was carried out (Arriaga et al 1993). The maize producers were selected at random based on their presence in the working plots within the studied zone. This included the five populations of major importance within the terraced zone. In total, 80 questionnaires were applied and afterwards analysed by means of the SAS programme. The results obtained were expressed as averages and frequencies following conventional procedures (Daniels 1984).


Social features of maize production

Similar to previous findings regarding the nopal-vegetable production system (Losada et al 1996a), maize production in the terraced zone was found to be carried out in the land next to the homestead, as part of the family garden, and/or in areas of land outside the village. In the villages where the fields closest to the habitations were dominated by nopal, maize occupied the intermediate space between the nopal and agro-forestry systems (sheep grazing and woodlands), while in the other villages, the main crop in the space immediately adjacent to the settlement was maize. The majority of producers claimed to have a primary level of education (60%) or to be literate (14%), while the main activity for the generation of income was agriculture (41%) combined with livestock (13%) and commerce (20%). A smaller percentage of producers reported that agriculture represented a complementary income (20%). Despite a large percentage of producers reporting that they considered themselves to be owners of the land (70%), in reality this definition of 'ownership' referred to the family tradition of working the same plot of land generation after generation, and in fact all the land of the zone is maintained under a communal regime. As would be expected for maize, the land type was temporal (95%), and only a minimal percentage reported employing auxiliary irrigation.

Technical features of maize production

The variety of maize sown in the zone corresponded to the native type known as "chalqueño", bred in the zone. The size of the family plot designated to the crop ranged between 100 and 1000m2 ; the majority of producers (77%) reported working plots in the range of 100-200m2 (24%), 200-300m2 (29%) and 300-500m2 (24%). The general characteristics related to the crop are presented in Table 1.

As it is possible to observe, the main part of the producers reported farming maize as a mono-crop, while those that grew it in association with other crops favoured associations of castillean squash (Cucurbita spp.), chilli ( Capsicum spp) and broad bean (Vicia faba), this latter representing a substitution for the traditional kidney-type bean (Phaseolus vulgaris sp.) which predominates in most parts of the country. As might be expected, the major proportion of proprietors reported choosing seed from previous crops based on the size of the individual seeds and of the overall cob.

The method of preparing the ground for cultivation demonstrated a close relationship with the rain cycle defined as spring-summer. The majority of proprietors concentrated the operations of ploughing and seedbed preparation in the months of January and February, with the number of assistants ranging from 0 to 4 (Table 2). Sowing took place before the start of the rainy season, between March and April (Table 3) while the activity of harvesting occurred between the months of October and November. For both seeding and harvesting the producers reported employing a variable number of assistants, determined by economic resources.

The results obtained in relation to crop technology are presented in Table 4. As can be seen, the majority of cultivation activities were carried out by means of teams of mules or manually. Only three producers reported the use of tractors and this was limited to the operations of ploughing and seedbed preparation.

As regards the sustainability of the crop in terms of type of traction and use of inputs, the results highlight the intensive use of animal and human traction in the various activities. The greater proportion of producers used cattle manure as the principal source of fertiliser (Table 5). The relatively small surface area sown with maize, with the grain destined in the main for subsistence use, favoured storing it in sacks rather than in granaries.

Economic and cultural features of maize production

The majority of producers reported using all the maize grain produced to supply family, backyard livestock and dairy needs, while the maize stubble was used exclusively for feeding ruminants, and was sold directly from the plot and/or house of the producer, as well as in the market (Table ).. The forms of sale of maize grain and stubble were by informal arrangements with individual buyers.

As might be expected, the major proportion of producers reported using the grains in the preparation of tortillas and other local dishes. Medicinal uses of the plant were limited to the utilization of the stigmas of the cob as a diuretic. A significant percentage of the proprietors indicated that they took the seed designated for planting to benediction on the 2nd of February, which corresponds to the Catholic Church's Book of Saints 'Act of Presentation of the Lord'. The reasons given for doing this were to ensure a good maize harvest.


The aspects of interest within the context of this present study were related to the cultural link of the crop as a sustenance food for the local population, and also as a form of production associated with the restricted use of external inputs earmarking it as a suitable crop in peri-urban spaces with a high potential to be incorporated within a proposal for sustainable development.

In contrast to the cultivation of nopal on the terraces, the production of which provides both a nutritional source and an economic income (Losada et al 1996a), maize has evolved as a system linked to the production of food for the local population as well as for animals kept in the backyard and for ruminants. An interesting point in this respect is that despite the apparent limitations of maize, including its dependence on the rainy season, the small areas cultivated, and the national system of price guarantees which determines that the price of maize is the lowest of all the products in the market - all factors representing high risk and low productivity - the population maintains strong links with the crop, ensuring its continued presence in the zone.

One possible explanation for this phenomenon might be found in the cultural nexus of the population with maize. It is well-known that one of the most important contributions of Mexico to the international community has been that of maize. It was its discovery and domestication that allowed the growth of the meso-american civilisation (Bonfil 1984), of which the history of the Valley of Mexico stands out. This phenomenon determined that maize was considered a sacred plant, and it was to become the 'reference point' from which to understand the social organisation, thought and knowledge, and the life styles of substantial sectors of the country's people (Hernandez 1949).

According to this situation, it is clear that in the terraced zone of the region of Xochimilco, the persistence of maize is 'justified' by a strong pre-hispanic cultural nexus which provides a good example of the link with culture that has escaped the simplistic rationalisation of classical economists who prefer to interpret nature based on the relationship of input/output.

A further interesting aspect of maize cultivation within the studied area is the limited use of external inputs, such as "improved" (for yield!) seeds, technology and fertilisers. A fundamental feature of the "green revolution" was the development, spear-headed by the International Centre of CYMMIT in Mexico, which led to the creation of complex genetic programmes in order to breed hybrid maize of potentially high productivity. The national trend of recent times has also focussed on the use of improved seed for intensive production based on high levels of external inputs. Meanwhile, the majority of farmers producing rain-fed maize, occupying an area of 5 million hectares, continue to use seed of native species adapted to local environmental conditions.

The native maize (chalqueño) used in the terraced zone has been reported to produce an average yield of 3 tonnes/ha. (Sanchez 1982) which is considered acceptable by the producers who view it as a sustenance crop. Despite governmental programmes within the studied area which have demonstrated increased yields of chalqueño to values of up to 9 tonnes/ha. with the intensive use of inorganic fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides, this has been rejected by the producers who instead have developed a particular method of production based on a knowledge of their peri-urban environment which has allowed, in a similar way to other crops in the area, an incorporation of urban wastes in the technology, as exemplified by the use of cattle manure from the city's dairy stables (Losada et al 1996b). From this it is clear that a dichotomy exists between governmental programmes which insist on the application of external inputs directed at increasing production (introducing the producer to the logic of the market economy at the cost of the environment) and the producers of the zone who have developed a technology appropriate to yields adequate to their sustenance needs and which preserves their productive medium. This suggests that the form of maize production that can be found in the terraced zone of Xochimilco could make up part of the proposal suitable for integration within a model of sustainable development required for this upland area within the metropolitan zone of city of Mexico.


The authors wish to thank: the students of the Animal Production option who helped with the field work; the authorities of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (Autonomous Metropolitan University) for facilities given to do the the research; maize producers in the region of Xochimilco for information; and to Ms R Pealing, a researcher from UK sponsored by the interchange CONACYT-British Council, for manuscript corrections.


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Received 13 August 1997

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