Sunday, March 22, 2009

Going Deep, Part 1

"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."

Watching the world spin out of control (and recognizing that control was illusory anyway) the soul yearns to touch the truly authentic, to caress it just once more, perhaps to say goodbye. I have a friend who lives in the Yucatán jungle and talks to birds. After rising at first light and listening to one morning’s conversation, I 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. I think it rang true for me, though. I also miss the familiar, and I am worried for the planet, if not for my own family, my remaining years here, and what will unfold in this century to come. That is why I welcome the opportunity to return to Belize each March.

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 Andrew Goodheart Brown and I to teach the annual Permaculture Design Course at the Maya Mountain Research Farm, I immediately agreed. The course has been taught in the past by many wonderful teachers — Penny Livingston Stark, Larry Santoya, Toby Hemenway — and my previous forays into the neighborhood, including a visit to the Belize Agroforestry Research Center back in 1991, told me that this was a very special location.

Andrew, myself and a team of special guest instructors — Andrew Leslie Phillips, Maria Martinez Ros and Hector Reyes — are returning on the Vernal Equinox of 2009 to teach another PDC in this wonderful environment.

Getting to the Research Farm is its own wild side adventure. You can fly or bus to Punta Gorda Town on the coast – I 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.

The next stage of the trip 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 $10 Belize dollars — US $5 — 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. His former partner, Dawn Dean, and he have two beautiful and resourceful children, Esperanza and Zephir.

Dawn, like Christopher, is an ethnobotanist, with a specialty in vanilla to compliment Chris’s interest in cacao. Dawn wants to establish an organic vanilla industry in the Toledo District, and to empower women, maintain the viability of the traditional village lifestyle, and promote agriculture that provides ecological services while increasing the income return to small farmers.

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, Dawn 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, they established a gene bank of 250 wild vanilla vines and began keeping growth records on them. This, along with an extended literature review, and site visits to growers in Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, prepared them for their current work, an extension service and pilot project for vanilla cultivation and marketing. The success of this project, and the enthusiasm it has generated are so high, that in December of 2007, they decided to form and register the Organic Vanilla Association (OVA) which Damn now directs.

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. Although it was a crop enjoyed and traded by the ancient Maya, there is no commercial vanilla being grown today in Belize.

Owing to a combination of hybridization and the loss of native bees, the production of vanilla fruits (called beans) requires the hand-pollination of each vanilla flower. The resulting bean must remain 9 months on the vine to reach full maturity. At the time of harvest, vanillin, vanilla’s primary flavor component, is not yet present but develops in the beans during the curing process which is comprised of scalding, sunning/sweating, drying, and conditioning. This curing process can take up to 9 months to complete, and in most countries is done in a centralized curing facility.

The majority of the world’s vanilla is produced in Madagascar, Indonesia, Uganda, Mexico and Papua New Guinea although it is consumed primarily in North America and Europe. The world market price for vanilla fluctuates, and is currently trading at an historic low of US$10 per kilo for top grade cured vanilla beans. By contrast, in 2003, vanilla prices were at US$500 per kilo. What changed was that the high prices brought new artificial vanillas to market, driving out the original.

Even at the lower prices, cultivation and production of vanilla is a non-gender specific activity that can create alternative livelihoods for those who grow and sell vanilla, and also for those in the vanilla-based industry, which includes many speciality products.

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. Dawn 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. 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 and send Esperanza and Zephir through college when they are ready. All of these species provide additional services to the ecosystem not usually calculated in the university 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.

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.

This is the first part of an article originally published in The Permaculture Activist No. 71 Spring 2009.

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