“To Take Care of the Land Means Taking Care of Ourselves”: Local Perceptions on Human and Environmental Health in a High Agro-Biodiversity Landscape in the Yucatan Peninsula (SITR7-5)



United Nations Development Programme








Forest and milpa landscape · Resilience · SEPLS · Milpa · Yucatan Peninsula


María Elena Méndez-López, María Fernanda Cepeda-González, Karla Juliana Rodríguez-Robayo, Lilian Juárez-Téllez, Mariana Rivera-De Velasco, Rosa Martha Peralta-Blanco, Nicolás Chan-Chuc, Andrea A. Serrano-Ysunza, R. Antonio Riveros-Cañas, Oscar G. Sánchez-Siordia, and Sebastien Proust 



The Forest and Milpa Landscape (FML) is a territory comprising 64 municipalities in the Yucatan Peninsula where the rainforest and the milpa system coexist. The ecosystems that predominate in the FML are sub-deciduous and subtropical evergreen forests, which represent an essential carbon reservoir worldwide. The use of natural resources for food security of FML families is associated with the milpa, which is a system that depends on the rainfall and the soil’s ability to retain water. Within the framework of the 2020–2030 Country Strategy of the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP), 20 indicators associated with the FML’s resilience were evaluated through a participatory approach. The methodological route consisted of adapting the Toolkit for the Indicators of Resilience in Socio-ecological Production Landscapes and Seascapes (SEPLS). A topic that generated much concern among participants was human health. The reflection generated around this indicator recognised problems associated with water contamination by agro-chemicals and changes in diet, resulting in recurrent diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. The solutions proposed by the small producers are linked to the sustainable management of ecosystems and education on values towards traditional and agroecological food production.

1 Introduction

The Forest and Milpa Landscape (FML) is a territory comprising 64 municipalities distributed across the three states of the Yucatan Peninsula (YP) in Mexico: Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Yucatan. The FML is a region where the rainforest and the milpa system coexist (Fig. 5.1 and Table 5.1), and is one of the five landscapes where the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP) operates in Mexico. The names given to each landscape aim to describe the ecosystems and traditional production activities of the region, creating an identity among communities. The FML is part of the participatory creation of the 2020–2030 Country Strategy of the SGP. 

The SGP adopted a community-based landscape approach during its sixth operational phase (OP6), which recognises that community-based organisations are the driving force in rural development strategies and must take the lead in project planning, landscape governance, project execution, and monitoring. This approach is part of a strategic initiative to promote conservation and sustainable use of natural resources and ecosystems. 

About one million people inhabit the FML, of which 48% is considered an economically active population (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI), 2015a). More than three-quarters of the municipalities have upwards of 10% of residents engaged in subsistence agriculture. On average, 29% of the economically active and occupied population is engaged in natural resource-use activities (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI), 2015a). In the FML, 45% of the population speaks an indigenous language, mainly Maya (Instituto Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas, 2015). The agro-biodiversity of milpas is an essential element for food security of indigenous families in the FML (Salazar Barrientos & Magaña Magaña, 2016). 

The milpa is an agroecosystem based on rotational cultivation under the slash-and-burn technique, which depends on the seasonal rainfall and the soil’s ability to retain water (Martínez et al., 2017; Salazar Barrientos et al., 2016). It makes up a matrix of polycultures, family gardens, and fragments of natural vegetation (Zizumbo-Villarreal & Colunga-García, 2017; Mariaca, 2015). The agro-biodiversity of the milpa is based on the so-called three sisters, corn, beans, and squash (Odum & Sarmiento, 1998), but comprises more than 30 species of other edible and medicinal plants (Toledo et al., 2003; Salazar Barrientos et al., 2016) along with other forbs and grasses known in Spanish as arvenses. The milpa in the FML has led to increased landscape diversity due to multistage and successional pathways of native secondary growth vegetation (Terán, 2010)

Fig. 5.1 Regionalisation of the forest and milpa landscape (source: prepared by Rosa Martha Peralta, Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI), 2015b; Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI), 2016; Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad (CONABIO), 2015)

The ecosystems that predominate in the FML are sub-deciduous and subtropical evergreen forests, which represent an essential carbon sink worldwide. Yet, they are in a highly vulnerable status mainly due to the increase in mechanised agriculture and cattle ranching caused by the high demand for food (Aide et al., 2013; Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas, 2020). 

Regarding water, the FML has a peculiar characteristic: surface streams are almost inexistent. Water runs underground, and openings to the exterior are sink-holes or dolines called cenotes. The terrestrial surface consists of porous limestone rock with high permeability and transmissibility that allows rain to pass easily to the underground; in addition, rock fractures facilitate water flow, and other liquids poured onto their surfaces flow through the fissures. Thus, the FML aquifer is highly vulnerable to pollutants (Hernández & Ortega, 2017).

The FML is a region with shallow stony soils, rainfall patterns with 6 months of low rain, and a high incidence of hurricanes. Nevertheless, Mayan communities in the Yucatan Peninsula have adapted the milpa system to these adverse conditions (Toledo et al., 2008). This socio-environmental resilience is associated with the Yucatan’s Mayan communities’ multi-use strategies of nature that allow for the use of a variety of natural resources, at domestic units, both for subsistence purposes and for local and regional economic exchanges (Barrera-Bassols & Toledo, 2005; García-Frapolli et al., 2008; Toledo & Barrera-Bassols, 2011; Pinto & Barrios, 2015). 

Today, the FML faces various threats that have diminished its resilience capacity. In the cultural sphere, a pattern of migration of young people to the Mayan Riviera has blocked the heritage of local knowledge associated with the milpa and their sustainable management (Rodríguez-Robayo et al., 2020). On the other hand, public policies have been implemented to make the milpa more profitable by promoting technology packages with genetically enhanced seeds and agrochemicals (Gutiérrez Núñez, 2020). Most of these chemicals are organochlorinated pesticides (OCPs) that mimic the functions of natural human hormones once they enter the body through water taken from contaminated wells and cenotes, and milpa foods consumed, by skin exposure or by inhalation (Polanco, Araujo, et al., 2018a). Pesticide-contaminated water in the FML is also linked to breast and uterine cancer and the presence of organochlorine substances in the breast milk of Mayan women (Polanco et al., 2017; Polanco, López, et al., 2018b). 

The FML, as we have seen, is a landscape with multiple vulnerabilities. In this chapter, we want to share the vision of the FML inhabitants—their concerns over problems related to human health that they are facing today, and the strategies with which they aspire to overcome them. 

We share reflections on the resilience of the FML from the perspective of the community members that inhabit it, namely, the peasants. A deliberation exercise was carried out by adapting the Toolkit for the Indicators of Resilience in Socio-ecological Production Landscapes and Seascapes (SEPLS) (Bergamini et al., 2014). These indicators seek to enhance local communities’ sense of proprietorship over landscape management processes and encourage them to think about how the landscape’s resilience can be improved. While indicators address different aspects of resilience, this study focuses on the issue of human and environmental health.

2 Methods

Within the framework of the 2020–2030 Country Strategy of the Small Grants Programme (SGP), two workshops were held in 2019, attended by a total of 40 peasants (18 women/22 men) living in the FML. The objective of the Country Strategy is to conduct a collective reflection on the status of production landscapes in Mexico, and propose plans based on local knowledge to improve those aspects where problems exist. 

It was first necessary to identify stakeholders from the three states of the Yucatan Peninsula to invite to participate. We made a list of community leaders who have developed conservation and sustainability projects within the FML, and then we contacted these leaders and asked them to extend invitations to those interested in attending. Young people, women, and men were invited to these workshops to ensure that the exercise represented the various generations and genders in society.
The objective of the workshops was to evaluate 20 indicators that were adapted from the SEPLS Toolkit (Bergamini et al., 2014). This toolkit was used to generate resilience indicators from the perspective of the peasants who use and inhabit this socio-ecological production landscape. 

Because participants came from different FML regions, sub-landscapes were defined using a participatory mapping technique, where producers themselves determined the extent of the territory on which they could make the assessment. Six sub-landscapes of the FML were evaluated utilising the indicators (Fig. 5.2). 

Each sub-landscape was represented by a team of between five and six participants, who evaluated the set of indicators. The help of three Mayan-Spanish translators was engaged to ensure an inclusive process. 

The Metaplan technique was used to evaluate the indicators. The process consisted of developing key questions to achieve a brainstorming process, followed by collective reflection and, finally, reaching a consensus on the score of each indicator using the Likert scale, with scores ranging from 1 to 5, where 1 is very low and 5 is very high. To ensure an accurate numerical value for each indicator, each participant was given a template with the five ranges (Fig. 5.3), and participants were asked to vote for the ranking category in which they considered each indicator to be, based on the discussion in the previous collective reflection. The values were averaged within the team and then between groups to get each indicator’s overall value. Participants assessed five groups of indicators: (a) heterogeneity and landscape protection, (b) agrodiversity and shared natural resources, (c) traditional knowledge and innovation, (d) governance and social equity, and (e) livelihoods. 

Each workshop lasted 2 days. During the first day, each team devoted an hour and a half to each group of indicators, with recess and recreation spaces to avoid fatigue.

On the second day, the results were discussed for each sub-landscape, and some strategies were developed to address indicators that obtained low ratings.

Fig. 5.2 Sub-landscapes of the FML as defined by six groups of participants from different regions (prepared by Rosa Martha Peralta)
Fig. 5.3 Ranges used to evaluate indicators of resilience (source: prepared by authors)

3 Results

3.1 Indicators of Resilience

The results are shown in Table 5.2. As noted, only 4 out of 20 indicators received a “high” rating, with most of them (13) evaluated as “regular,” and only 3 put into the “low” category. In the first group, landscape heterogeneity and ecosystem protection, one indicator was evaluated as high, and three were regular. In the second group, agrodiversity and shared natural resources, all three indicators were deemed to be regular. In the group of traditional knowledge and innovation indicators, one indicator was low, two regular, and one high. Three indicators were regular and one low in governance and equity. Finally, in the livelihoods group, two indicators were scored high, two regular, and one low (Table 5.2).

To address the issue of human and environmental health, we delved into the indicator that obtained the lowest value in both workshops: human health and environmental conditions (livelihoods group). Reasons for this focus include this indicator being an issue to which participants gave much weight in collective reflections, and also one that is associated with other indicators whose values were regular or low: socioeconomic infrastructure, traditional knowledge, community governance, and local production diversity. 

The questions that were asked to participants in reflecting on human health and environmental conditions were the following: (a) Are our communities healthy? (b) Is there any link between the diseases we have in the community and the environmental conditions (soil, cenotes, forests)? 

For the first question, answers were negative for all teams. The most mentioned diseases in the FML communities were stomach infections, diabetes, cancer, kidney problems, and hypertension. Other isolated mentions were infertility, anaemia, and headaches, among others (Table 5.3). 

Answers to the second question were all positive regarding the relationship between disease and environmental health. Participants linked diseases such as stomach infections and cancer to water and air pollution caused by the lack of landfills and consequent burning of litter. Causes of diarrhoea mentioned included the increasing hot weather in recent years and water contamination due to the establishment of pig farms. Likewise, cancer was linked to water contamination by toxic residues from mechanised agriculture and excess of hormones in food. 

Participants explained that diabetes is related to switching from a milpa-based diet (corn, bean, squash, bush meat, and honey, among other products) to an industrialised diet. Participants noted that the consumption of junk food and high-sugar carbonated beverages has increased in the last years in their communities. Participants associate this phenomenon with the indicator for traditional knowledge related to biodiversity, concerning which reflection focused on young people in communities losing interest in the milpa and its rituals: “They see traditional knowledge as backwardness”. This trend is strengthened by cultural uprooting due to migration, resulting in the milpa foodscape and other local production systems not being valued and a rising preference for industrialised products from the global market. 

Other environmental health issues associated with the aetiology of diseases included water in communities containing a lot of chlorine; high deforestation rate of remnant forest patches; increment of disease vectors due to increased heat; and planting of GMOs.

In addition to the health problems faced by FML communities, the socio economic infrastructure indicator showed a lack of medical services (hospitals, ambulances, and access to medicines).

3.2 Local Strategies for Resilience

On the second day of the workshops, a reflection was made on the FML’s priority aspects, based on the work done on the first day. As mentioned earlier, the human health indicator was chosen as a priority. Although many of the factors that cause health problems are outside the communities, proposals were made for strategies with the potential to address issues at the local level to increase the resilience of the FML. 

Regarding the problem of diabetes, education is a crucial element; as one participant mentioned: 

Children do not know the food from the milpas, we have to work with them, tell them that corn, sweet potato and beans are the best food, and share with them what we know about the value of milpa. 

The same person mentioned a project that he develops in schools to build organic gardens: 

Students learn the whole process and thus they value food because they know what it costs to get it. 

The participant concludes by saying that the best thing people can do to avoid getting sick is “to take care of the land, that means taking care of ourselves, but it is something we have not understood”. 

A proposed strategy to prevent pesticide contamination in water and food was to implement innovations in production activities, as one participant suggested: 

We can take advantage of the excrements of animals from our yards to make fertiliser, and we also can use microorganisms; we can mix these techniques with the old practices of milpa to make agroecology. 

The problem of pesticides from extensive agriculture is more complex, as it is caused by public policies that have promoted agrochemicals since the 1940s, when the federal government supported national projects on “agricultural modernisation” that were derived from agreements with the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, the main campaigners of the Green Revolution. A strategy proposed by the workshop participants is associated with community governance: 

Here we realise the problems, we are talking about it, and they are problems that we have in common, even if we come from different places. We have to go now to talk to the people in our communities, we must understand that transgenic maize and pesticides are not the best options. We need a lot of organisation and communication to change those beliefs. 

Regarding soil and water contamination, it was mentioned that the problem was not only the application of chemicals in milpas, but also the mismanagement of pesticide containers. One suggested strategy to address this problem is again related to community governance: 

In my community, we are making citizen complaints at all three levels of government (municipal, state and federal). We also have been able to make alliances with other organisations and universities … we cannot continue to think that this is God’s work— this is because there is bad ecosystem management. 

Another proposal from participants involved innovation. They noted that it is essential for each community to find a way to get water filters, and also to get technologies for rain capture. 

A proposal on addressing the shortcomings of health services in communities involved the creation of medicine hospitals: 

Young people could learn traditional medicine and train others so that we will no longer have to go looking for hospitals that are far away. We have to look for alternatives together. 

Another of the strategies mentioned was to seek advice on how to know their rights with regard to human health in order to be able to demand them.

4 Discussion

The livelihoods and health of FML inhabitants are closely related to the proper
functioning of ecosystems. The rainforest is essential to maintain the hydrological cycle in the FML, which means that rains preserve milpas and provide water for human consumption. Water is also used for irrigation of home gardens, to feed animals, and to maintain apiaries. In turn, all production activities conducted in the soil of the FML have a substantial impact on water quality due to the soil’s high permeability. According to Batllori (2017), the main sources of water pollution include all those mentioned by the participants, including pig farms, agricultural activities, and garbage dumps, but also wastewater from tourist areas and urban areas that, although seem to be non-rural issues, have a significant impact on FML water quality.

The recognition of the close relationship between human health and ecosystem health has been lost over time. Older people continue to perform rituals of respect and appreciation for what nature provides to them (e.g. food, medicine, beauty), but younger generations have left these customs behind. The devalorisation of cultural ecosystem services in SEPLS has been identified as one of the main fronts of scholarly enquiry in the new geographies of conservation (Sarmiento & Cotacachi, 2019). Duarte (2017) reflected on the change in perceptions of resources, such as water or maize, noting that perceptions define how resources are valued and handled. She also recounts how on a visit to a J’men (a man specialising in the rituals of the Mayan milpa), she heard him say, “the holy water is a blessing to all human beings living on earth” (Duarte, 2017, p. 137). In this sense, the proposals made during the workshops on recovering and revaluing local knowledge by creating traditional medicine hospitals are very relevant, not only to redevelop and strengthen the meaning of the “human health-nature” relationship, but also to address a violation of a fundamental human right—access to public health systems.

Food production is another relevant issue for FML health. Some studies have analysed the relationship of pesticides with diseases, such as cancer, showing that they inhibit humans’ hormonal functions (Polanco, López, et al., 2018b). Pesticides enter the FML’s food chains from various sources, including honey, milpa products, bush meat, and water. Participants’ proposals to develop sustainable innovations for production practices and access to less contaminated water may fail to eliminate many pollution sources; however, these proposals are essential to ensure that production activities for self-consumption, like beekeeping and the milpa system, remain healthy systems for food security, and no longer function as another vehicle for pollutants to enter the human body.  

Although our study is based on an analysis of the perceptions of FML inhabitants, it is interesting that their perceptions are closely associated with information from the scientific literature. For example, the concern they expressed in the workshops about water pollution associated with pig farms and pesticides has been documented in various studies previously mentioned in this chapter (Batllori, 2017; Hernández & Ortega, 2017; Metcalfe et al., 2011; Polanco et al., 2017; Polanco, Araujo, et al., 2018a). The problem of diabetes being associated with changes in diet has also been widely documented, and is relevant for these communities whose diet was previously based on the consumption of milpa products. For example, Narvaez and Segura (2020) analyse the recent increase of diabetes in indigenous Mayan regions; they also explain the antidiabetic potential of foodstuff from the milpa. Some studies have documented evidence showing that the introduction of industrialised foods into the diet of Mayan communities a decade ago, which meant a less nutritious diet, rich in sugars, saturated fats, salt, and colour and flavour additives, implied an increased risk of obesity and diabetes (Pérez Izquierdo et al., 2012; Leatherman & Goodman, 2005). In recent studies this problem prevails (Frank & Durden, 2017; Leatherman et al., 2020; Otero Prevost et al., 2017). Although the subject of dietary change related to gender did not arise in the workshops, it is relevant. For instance, obesity is a problem that affects women more in Mayan communities than elsewhere (Marín Cárdenas et al., 2014).  

The generation of resilience indicators revealed the many vulnerabilities of the FML. However, it also allowed reflection on potential options to seek to enhance the landscape’s resilience from the local point of view, accepting that the cause of vulnerabilities often comes from decisions made outside the FML communities. One of the most important lessons of this exercise is that assessing trends, reflecting collectively, and designing strategies from a bottom-up perspective have the potential to empower local people to begin to recognise themselves as managers of their territories.

5 Conclusion

One main lesson learned is that the landscape approach methodology is much more aligned with the peasants’ view of their ecosystem than a sectoral approach. During the feedback sessions with participants, they mentioned that the integrated approach, for example including medicine produced within the ecosystem, allowed them to relate their experiences to the future SGP strategy. In rich biocultural diverse contexts, this approach is even more relevant.

The resilience indicators, co-created by the participants, focused on the perception of trends. In the development context, data is the main source of information to define a baseline. By asking participants how they visualise those trends, we recognise that they own the key knowledge. The methodology also allows for the detection of threats that are not monitored by governmental bodies, such as the use of pesticide in the rural sector in Mexico. 

In 2019, during the workshops, the human health indicator was chosen as a priority by the participants. Because the strategies proposed are not GEF-eligible activities, adoption by the SGP of a specific strategy was considered as a challenge by the country’s programme team. However, one year later, and after 14 months of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the GEF is now holding discussions within its Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel on the link between ecosystem and human health (Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP), 2020). To add to these discussions, new theoretical proposals on the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 on the planet should be a priority. Alcántara-Ayala (2021) proposes the typification of this type of phenomenon as “syndemic pan-disaster”. This approach recognises that society’s vulnerability and exposure to COVID-19 have presented the great challenge of solving countless pre-existing problems, such as those detected in the exercise documented in this chapter. Thus, the communities detected local threats that are now fully part of the global environmental agenda, and action may be taken during the next 10 years in SGP Mexico to support those initiatives in the framework of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. 

Finally, it is essential to mention that almost half of the participants in the workshops were women, highlighting the importance of the gender perspective during these workshops. This topic becomes highly relevant when scientific data show that environmental health affects men and women differently, for example, the relationship between uterine and breast cancer, and contaminated breast milk and pesticide contamination in water (Polanco et al., 2017; Polanco, López, et al., 2018b). The gender perspective makes it possible to generate strategies that better address the problems faced by SEPLS.

Acknowledgements: This project was funded by SGP-GEF. We want to thank the Mayan men and women who shared with us their reflections and their knowledge.


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