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Going Deep

"Like our religious traditions, the agriculture we are accustomed to is a 5000-year-old relic that grew surpluses, but also bequeathed enormous and spreading deserts, centralized and hierarchical wealth systems, standing militaries, and a seemingly intractable global ecological crisis."



Claudia Gonzales takes the Bicimachina for a spin
We originally posted a version of this piece to The Great Change in March, 2009, as a two part essay we called “Going Deep.” We find ourselves now, in 2013, back in Belize for our annual permaculture design course and, rather than reinvent, we are revising and republishing that earlier post, now even more relevant to these times.

These days we speak in many venues of food forests, or edible forest design, and our audiences may look back at us very skeptically. Western Civilization was founded on savannah grasses, irrigation and the plow, and, like our religious traditions, the agriculture we are accustomed to is a 5000-year-old relic that grew surpluses of grains, but also bequeathed enormous and spreading deserts, centralized and hierarchical wealth systems, standing militaries, and a seemingly intractable global ecological crisis.

No green chlorophyllic cells can photosynthesize 100% of the sunlight that falls on an unfiltered square inch of ground in a day, so most of that solar energy is bounced back to space or lost to heat. Multistoried polyculture forests with climbing vines and groundcovers, on the other hand, share dappled rations of light as a community and have far greater absorption, production of oxygen, retention of nutrients, and a greater potential to provide food, should they be so directed.

So it is, that when we learn that in the collapse now underway resides the seeds of a different style of agriculture that does not carry all the historic baggage that burdens us, we may, with good justification, rejoice. Our space here in this corner of the cyberverse has become a string of such celebrations.

We have an elderly friend who lives in the Yucatán jungle and talks to birds. After rising at first light and listening to one morning’s conversation, we asked him what they had to say.

“They are sad,” he said. “Nostalgic for what was, but is gone. Each year there are fewer of them, and they want the world put back the way it had been. They are a bit frightened at the unfamiliarity of everything now. The seasons have changed. Everything has changed. They are sad.”

It was very strange that we were having this conversation while standing in one of the richest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet, a broadnecked peninsula at midpoint on the migratory flyway between the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. It rang true for us, though. We also miss the familiar, and are worried for the planet, if not for our own family, our remaining years here, and what will unfold in this decade to come. That is why we welcome the opportunity to return to Belize each year at this time.
Belize has a diverse society, composed of many cultures and speaking many languages. Because of its British heritage and Commonwealth status, English is the official language, although only about half the people of Belize speak it and for more than half of those it is a second language. Kriol, Spanish, and at least three Mayan languages are more common to most children. With only 320,000 people, Belize’s population density is the lowest in Central America — comparable to Iceland. Less people live here today than during the classic Maya period. Unfortunately, as a Catholic country with easy immigration, the population growth rate is 2.21 percent, one of the highest in the western hemisphere. Given its natural wealth, that is small wonder.

When Christopher Nesbitt invited us to teach the annual Permaculture Design Course at the Maya Mountain Research Farm, we immediately agreed. The course has been taught in the past by many wonderful teachers — Penny Livingston, Larry Santoya, Toby Hemenway —  and our previous forays into the neighborhood, including a visit to the Belize Agroforestry Research Center in 1991, told us that this was a very special location. The students we have attracted are even more impressive than our teaching cadre and include Culture Change’s Jan Lundberg (2011), Local Future’s Aaron Wissner (2012) and now, The Automatic Earth’s Nicole “Stoneleigh” Foss (2013).

Getting to the Research Farm is its own wild side adventure. You can fly or bus to Punta Gorda Town on the coast – we recommend the 8-seat air shuttle from Belize City that takes about 45 minutes with 3 stops along the way – and then by bus (daily at noon) or taxi up to San Pedro Columbia, the little village in the highlands of the Maya Mountains that is the jumping off point for the river travel up to MMRF.

Toledo, with a population of 27,000, is the least globalized and most rustic district in Belize. The pyramid city of Lubaantun, near San Pedro Colombia, is a Late Classic Mayan ceremonial and commerce center where the famous crystal skull was found by the teenage daughter of archaeologist F.A. Mitchell-Hedges in 1926. Chris quips that on the Research Farm you can’t throw a Frisbee without hitting a Maya ruin. In the Classic Era this was the settlement of Uxbantun, a suburb of Lubaantun.

The journey in travels up river past Lubaantun by the Columbia Branch of the Rio Grande. A boy with a dugout “dory” canoe takes you up river for $24 Belize dollars — US $12 — per person. All of the dory men know the location, 2 miles (1 hour) up river at the shallow bend with the tall stands of bamboo on the starboard shore. Alternatively, with the help of a hired guide, you can take the rugged mountain trail there.

The river’s source is a massive spring that bursts from the ground a quarter mile up river from that bamboo bend. It emerges from a vast underground river system that drains the 100,000 acre Columbia River Forest Reserve, a uniquely pristine natural area of broadleaf tropical forest, replete with howler monkeys, jaguars, monarch butterflies and birds of paradise. The Reserve continues rising up the slopes of the Maya Mountains until they spill over into Guatemala. The landscape is strongly karsified, riddled with caves and some of the largest cenotes in the country (one is 800 feet deep and 1/4 mile wide). Shallow caverns of quartz-rich rocks provide breeding habitats for many animal populations.

Christopher Nesbitt had come to Belize at age 19 and decided to emigrate and buy a piece of land on the river two years later in 1988. At the time, the land was in cattle and citrus, as are many of his neighbor’s farms today. Chris is a sort of lanky John Malkovich with a scraggly beard and a wry sense of humor.

Christopher worked for Green & Blacks at Toledo Cacao Growers Association from 1997 to 2004. His job was to manage an extension program that would help smallholders develop strategies of agroforestry that would favor both biodiversity and cacao production. During this period he also worked for Plenty Belize doing solar power installations and as a trainer for Peace Corps volunteers in the region.

In 2004, Christopher and a board of directors comprised of Belizeans working in agriculture formed a non-profit organization and made the Research Farm its principal asset. After years of gathering specimens of vanilla, the farm established a gene bank of 250 wild vanilla vines and began keeping growth records on them. In 2007, they formed the Organic Vanilla Association (OVA).

Vanilla — the kind we find in little brown bottles or in ice cream — is the cured, fermented fruit of the perennial hemi-epiphytic orchid Vanilla planifolia, a rare endemic found in the under-story of lowland forests of Central America. Because of the careful attention and specific horticultural technique required, vanilla produces best when cultivated by a person who is personally acquainted with each specific plant, rather than on a plantation. For this reason, most of the world’s commercial vanilla is grown by farmers who own less than 5 acres.

Christopher is demonstrating how vanilla can be grown most profitably in the way that the ancient Maya did it, as part of an agroforestry polyculture. His hillside landscape is a tree-based agricultural system that resembles the structure, complexity and interconnectivity of the native ecosystem, providing ecological services such as erosion control, air purification, soil and water retention and wildlife habitat.

In Belize, as in other parts of the world, wild vanilla stands have been decimated, and untold genotypes lost. With its low population density, Toledo District still has many wild remnant stands. This research has identified 27 distinct species so far, including a self-pollinating variety.
As Christopher takes our small class on a walk around the hillside above the river, we are shown the products of two decades of careful plantings. Christopher divides his new seedlings into three categories, depending on when they can be harvested. Vanilla vines climb cacao and peach palm trees. The near-term pioneer crops are the annuals like corn and beans, or the pineapple, pigeon pea, squash and melons planted between the corn contours, along with perennials like nopale cactus, yam, purslane, basil, amaranth and gourds. The intermediate crops are perennials like avocado, golden plum, zapote, sea almond, allspice, bamboo, palms, breadfruit, coconut, coffee, coco-yam, banana, citrus, mango, cacao, papaya, tea tree, euphorbia, noni, blackberries, gooseberry, chaya, ginger and pineapple. They will yield sweet fruits, jams, wines, basket-fiber, soaps, beverages and medicines after a few years of fast growth. The long term crops are samwood, mahogany, cedar, teak, Malabar chestnut, sea chestnut and other slow-growing trees that will close the over-story. All of these species provide additional services to the ecosystem not usually calculated in the government agronomist’s bottom line.

An important feature to the tropical landscape design is the creation of soil. Here in the equatorial latitudes much of the nutrient value of soils is carried in the standing plants, and the process of transmitting soil elements through decomposers and carriers to next year’s crops is very fast. Loss of soil by over-exposure, short swidden cycles (15 years was traditional but population pressure has been collapsing rest periods to 3 to 5 years), and erosion during the intense rainy season, is the normal pattern on most farms, and many farmers struggle to supplant those losses by increasing fertilizer applications, at unreckoned cost, both to farm profits and the soil.

We have a number of local agronomists in our class and last night Nicole Foss took the opportunity to give a short slide show on farming in the context of peak oil. While Belize doesn’t have a lot of oil, it does export some when the prices are high enough to justify extraction, but it has no refineries. Nicole explained why farming with fertilizers, GM seeds and all the usual petrochemical inputs of modern agriculture was such a bad idea, pointing to the example of what has happened to rural India, where agrochemical dependency has led to one of the highest rates of suicide in the world.

At MMRF, pioneer species like banana, vetiver grass, pigeon pea, corn and a mixture of timber trees have been seeded out into the areas adjacent to the buildings. Swales and terracing have stopped hillside erosion during the rainy period and Chris continuously seeds out fresh milpas, so there is always plenty of food to be harvested. There is no shortage of fresh food in every season, and today we will be eating a half dozen varieties of fruit, and equally diverse carbohydrates, fats and proteins.

Many of the Research Farm’s neighbors in the Toledo District have been mis-educated in government-run ag schools subsidized by seed and chemical companies. They see trees and farm crops as in opposition — one or the other, but not both. Through the work with the cacao cooperative, and now in creating the vanilla co-op, MMRF is spreading an old meme — resiliency and profit from polyculture agroforestry. Students of ours from prior years’ courses are models of self-sufficency and innovation that are spreading a viral meme in a dozen local villages.

Christopher pauses in the shade of a large avocado he planted in 1989. “More avocados than can be eaten by one family,” he says, pointing upwards.  He plans to start a piggery and goat shed and feed the pigs and goats the surplus avocados. He wants to use their manure to make methane for his kitchen. He also plans a tank and pond aquaculture system.

Shelling fermented cacao beans
After taking a Permaculture Design Course in 1991, Christopher put swales across his hillsides and added a number of ground hugging plants and vines to keep the soils shaded and protected from erosion. For him, cacao was the keystone plant in the system, and there was good reason that the Maya placed a high social value on it, beyond its health and nutritional qualities. The scientific name Theobroma means "food of the gods".

Raw cacao beans contain magnesium, copper, iron, phosphorus, calcium, anandamide, phenylethylamine, arginine, polyphenols, epicatechins, potassium, procyanidins, flavanols, and vitamins A, B, C, D, and E. Long before Belgium chocolate, the ancients mixed it with maize, chili, vanilla, peanut butter and honey to make beverages and confections. The Aztec and Maya cultures used the beans as currency, a practice that persisted out in the Yucatan until the 1840s. Given world prices in the US $1200 (industrial grade) to $5000 (fair trade organic) per metric ton range, the beans are a form of currency still.

When Mayan women go into labor they are given a big thick mug of toasted cacao, cane sugar and hot water. Because it is rich in calories and healthful, that big mug can see them through days of labor and the recovery afterwards.

While many of the world's flowers are pollinated by bees (Hymenoptera) or butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera), cacao flowers are pollinated by tiny flies, midges in the order Diptera. This makes cacao less vulnerable to some of the problems associated with other pollinators. Cacao trees do not require fertilizer or other agro-chemical inputs, and are only rarely attacked by blights, fungi and viruses in small holdings. Moreover, every time an old cacao tree falls over, it throws out a new main stem, so many trees in Belize that are now in production are original stock — centuries old.

On the stones outside the kitchen, under the roof and out of the rain, Christopher has a bowl of cacao beans fermenting. They are left there for a week and grow a fine white spiderweb of hyphae as they incubate.  He didn’t need any starter, the airborne yeasts did the job. After 7 days, it is rinsed, ground, and toasted. This year we brought with us a new cacao grinder for the farm, donated by a new branch of Bicimachina in Mexico. It is a modified recumbent bicycle that lets you grind many kilos of cacao in a short amount of time. Chris is salivating at the wow factor this will have when his neighbors see it.
Most of the rain in Southern Belize falls in July and August — hurricane season — and tapers off to December. They get 100 to 160 inches in that period. The Research Farm has been known to get abrupt heavy rains in late February or June, so normally we hold the permaculture design course well into March, when the dry season has established itself, the river is lower and tamer for taxi traffic, and the trails to Lubaantun are more easily negotiated. This year we are catching a bit more rain because we are personally overscheduled, leaving here March 2 to teach an Ecovillage Design Course in Colombia.
Belize has 574 reliably reported species of birds. About half never leave the tropics. The chorus around us varies through the course of a day, but it never ends from dawn until dusk. At night the predators come out of the forest, so Christopher puts the chickens and ducks into the coop and latches the door. They do well feeding on the leaf cutter ants during the day, but they are domestic creatures, and this is still a jungle.

Coming back to this place has become an annual migration for us, to get back in touch with the inner heart of nature. Back to the source. It may be that in the coming years, trips of this distance will become less simple than hitching rides on great steel birds via Travelocity and might instead involve booking sail passage from Key West or traversing Mexico by donkey cart, but for now, we are using whatever tools we still have to learn as much as we can about how to grow food this way while also restoring the planet to the garden it is trying to be. 

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