The drought parching harvests in several of the world’s most productive food baskets is the summer’s hottest global food story. Eerily, it’s matched by the season’s hottest archeological finding, which comes across as a cautionary tale.
Benjamin Cook, who sifts through mountains of computerized data rather than dusting off shards of pottery like old-fashioned archeologists, developed a climate model that explains one of the great mysteries of Western hemisphere history — the sudden collapse of the advanced and mighty Mayan Empire roughly 1300 years ago.
Turns out that drought, human-caused drought, was the culprit that made central America, home base for the Mayans, uninhabitable. The Mayans chopped down forests both to clear land for farming maize (corn) and to burn timber used to convert limestone into building blocks for Mayan temples, much like the energy-intense process used to make today’s cement.
Once the region lost its dark forest canopy that previously absorbed the sun’s rays, the heat bounced back into the atmosphere, thereby evaporating clouds that once dropped rain needed to feed the first empire entirely dependent on a food supply centered around corn. History seems to be repeating itself for the second of the western hemisphere’s great empires entirely dependent on a food supply centered around corn and an energy system bent on deforestation.
But what I saw in Honduras confirms there is life after plantation-style fields of corn. It just takes a complete rethink of the standard polarization so common in “western” thinking, which holds that forests are about wilderness that has to be cleared before fields can produce agriculture and civilization.
The continuing holding power of that myth influences today’s urban forestry ethic, which promotes city trees as ways to bring nature back to the city and provide pleasing and calming environments that improve air quality and boost mental health. But a new generation of city tree boosters see orchards and forests as ways to grow food, not just an escape from the Civilization Blues.
What I saw among the Indigenous peoples in Yorito and its surrounding mountain ranges certainly confirms the view that forest gardens have what it takes to provide food, as well as other benefits.
Of course, Honduras has some obvious advantages when it comes to food production. Aside from a tropical climate, it’s classed as a “center of origin” for many of the world’s major food crops, such as corn. It enjoyed plenty of genetic diversity of its own, as well as a imports from other tropical colonies controlled by Spanish conquerors of central America.
If Yorito, where I was based, gets on the tourist map for forest gardens, it will be the first time Yorito gets on the tourist map. The village is about a three-hour drive north on paved road from the capital city. The nearby mountain villages we visited every day are another two-hour lurching jeep drive over rib-crunching dirt and gravel roads (Note to self — never underestimate the value of high-quality country roads again).
We ate our morning and evening meals in the living room of Nelba Velasquez, one of Yorito’s leading micro-entrepreneurs, who also started a water purification plant staffed by young single moms, as well as a landscape shop and forest garden in her own quarter-acre yard. Much of the food in the restaurant comes from the garden. Like many people in town, she grows beans and squash on raised beds and hosts a number of chickens, who live up to the free in free range.
The first thing I notice is that the temperature in her forest garden drops about five degrees, partly thanks to shade and partly due to the evaporation of cool water from broad-leafed trees. Nelba says she sometimes comes here for a cool afternoon snooze in a hammock tied between two trees – the latest must-have in forest gardening.
Here in one overgrown parcel of a quarter acre lot, I see a beautiful and scrumptious answer to climate chaos, hunger, and the chronic disease pandemic created by deficiency of micronutrients suffered by rich and poor alike. Nelba has been tending this garden for 26 years ago, when she bought the abandoned livestock pasture she turned into a home.
If this were a supermarket, no-one would complain about lack of choice in the produce or medicine aisles from a hundred-foot diet.
Here is my count of what fits in her backyard besides a hammock, a clothes line, a baking oven for bread, a catchment basin for rainwater, two heaps of Japanese-style super-powered compost called Bokachi, a woodpile, a raised bed garden for vegetables, and a showroom for landscape plants: four avocado trees, two of two different kinds of guava trees, a papaya tree, a mandarin orange and lemon tree, a tree bearing yellow Nanci berries for juice, a plum, 60 coffee plants, a tamarind and an allspice tree, with sweet grass (for Thai soup and tea), balladania (a herbal that soothes anxiety), allspice and passion fruit hanging out of the fence lining her neighbor’s property. Did I almost forget ten varieties of banana?
The entire garden is organic and requires no plowing, which keeps all the carbon stored by trees and in the soil intact, a powerful measure to mitigate global warming.
Nelba puts the diversity down to a personality quirk. “I always want to diversify everything. My hands are in everything,” Nelba tells me after our tour.
Aside from running the water purification plant next door for a day a week, Nelba is also on the local public health board and is treasurer of her local “cial,” which promotes seed diversity as a tool of empowerment for low-income communities. Forest gardens are sprouting among the hilltops dominated by beans and corn, wherever cial chapters flourish.
I believe these kinds of forest gardens are becoming the next new thing in North America’s local food movement. Earlier this summer, Seattle claimed to have North America’s first, only to be jumped on by a score of cities and towns claiming they were first. The nice thing is that edible forest gardens don’t have to compete with trees grown for beauty, shade and animal habitat. Forests are all-inclusive presences.
We don’t need a prophet to lead us out of the wilderness, my solar engineer friend Greg Allen likes to say. We need a prophet to lead us back. Food production can be part of that restoration.
(Wayne Roberts is on the board of Unitarian Service Committee of Canada-Seeds of Survival, which funds “cials” in Honduras, and he toured Honduras as one of their delegation.)