Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Going Deep, Part 2

"More avocados than can be eaten by one family"

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.

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.

When we first visited there in early 2008, the Research Farm was already fully self-sufficient. You could live quite comfortably on the breadnuts, avocados, corn, bananas, coffee, fish, beans and all the rest. You could drink from the river, although Christopher harvests water for the kitchen from a spring farther uphill. As I glanced around the open-air kitchen, the purchased cans and jars contained items like powered milk, granulated sugar, olive oil, foreign teas, iodized salt and baking soda. These are all part of a Western diet, but for the most part, not indispensable.

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 Christopher has learned to 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.

Belize has 574 reliably reported species of birds. About half never leave the tropics. The chorus around us varied through the course of a day, but it never ended from dawn until dusk. At night the predators come out of the forest, so Christopher has to put the chickens into the coop and latch 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.

Seventy-five percent of Belize is native forest and savannah, and 50 percent of the country’s land and water is in protected status of some form. This does not mean that these large tracts are uninhabited, like a big national park. Quite the contrary — Mayan and Garinigu villages are found inside most of the reserves.

For more than two thousand years the Maya of Central American practiced a milpa style swidden agriculture, something that has gotten a bad name (“slash-and-burn”) but was actually a very effective and productive way to farm in the tropics while building soil and sequestering carbon. As Toby Hemenway described in Permaculture Activist No. 51, milpa starts with clearing a forest plot, taking out most of the trees but leaving some nitrogen fixers, timber trees, or other valued species. The Maya, like the Amazonian creators of the terra preta soils and the Aborigines of Australia, fired the remaining brush, which had the added benefit of depositing char, nutrient-rich ash, and curing firewood and construction-grade trees. The short term annuals then fill much of the opened space for the first 2 to 4 years while seedlings of plantains, avocados, fruits and fiber plants are set in place and mulched, and leguminous trees and bushes, and cacao, are stump-sprouted. Over the next five to eight years the canopy closes and the farmers stop planting annuals and start training vanilla and interspersing coffee, ginger, allspice and other understory plants. Cattle and poultry forage between the emergent trees.

The managed-forest stage was typically 15 years, but could be double that time in a milpa of particularly fruitful serendipity. The managed-forest stage is the most productive part of the cycle. Then the land was cleared and the cycle and soils renewed.

In sharp contrast to traditional milpa, today’s farmers employ a modified milpa that burns the corn and rice fields every year, goes for the highest paying crops to the exclusion of nitrogen-fixers and wildlife habitat, and plants into steep terrain without swales or terracing. It is these kinds of farming practices that nearly erased the Maya Mountain Research Farm from the map in 2008.

On the evening of May 19th, Christopher and Dawn saw a glow on the horizon. The absentee landowner neighbors, the “Tropical Conservation Foundation” had allowed their tenants to burn off farming stubble, and two hills over, those neighbors had lit their annual fire to clear for rice. By the next night, the fire was only one hill away. The following afternoon, it crested the hill above them and began moving down to the classroom and staff housing. Buckets of water, machetes to chop firebreaks and hot, hard work without pause saved the structures. By 11 pm they ate and fell asleep, exhausted.

The next afternoon, the far end of the pasture caught fire. Floating embers ignited spot fires throughout the farm. By 3:30 Christopher and his fellow fire-fighters had to acknowledge defeat and evacuate to the river. Amazingly, though the fire then swept across the farm, the solar and wind-powered buildings and most cultivated areas were spared. Spot fires continued to spark up until, on the seventh day, it finally rained.

This uncontrolled milpa fire burned an estimated 300-400 acres. Of the 70 acres of MMRF, a little over 50 acres were completely burned, leaving mostly ash and open sky. The fire spared MMRF’s cultivated areas, which had been surrounded by fuelwood-managed sectors that deprived the fire of fuel and held moisture in the ground, but they lost coconuts, cacao, pineapples, some large teak trees and many other species. The fire burned the natural remnant forest and destroyed thousands of young timber trees that had been planted. With the canopy opened and the native habitat destroyed, wildlife were forced to migrate elsewhere for food – toucans have since been coming right inside the kitchen to eat bananas. Jaguar, brocket deer, peccary, ocelots, tayra and other animals that had used the forest cover to access water in the dry season became threatened and left. When the rains came in July, the soils washed downhill, silting two small creeks and displacing still more wildlife.

Restoration after the fire is ongoing. Five acres of corn were planted and a mix of other plants followed between corn patches, including timber species, leguminous species, fruit trees, and bio-mass accumulators. Christopher says no one on site has experience in restoration of tropical eco-systems devastated by fire and he would welcome anyone with interest or expertise in this area. Seeds for reforestation are being generously provided by Trees for the Future.

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. Christopher wants to replace the flammable heliconias, which were part of why the fire traveled so easily. Thousands of linear feet of vetiver rows have been planted on contour to control erosion in a part of the land that was damaged. Thousands of trees and pineapples were planted out between the rows of vetiver.

Swales and terracing have stopped the worst effects of erosion during the rainy period and when we started the course March 20 we were well into the dry season again. There will be lots of opportunities to seed out fresh milpas, and plenty of food ready to be harvested again.

Last night Christopher gave a chalk talk on chinampas, the aquatic soil-building technique used by the Aztecs, Maya, Inca and many others in the Americas to create a system of agriculture so sustainable that its fertility persists even after the earthworks at its core were discontinued 400 years ago. Such systems require considerable labor to establish, but have huge net EROIE and caloric profitability annually thereafter. When we think about the swamp that Washington DC was built upon, it occurs to us that the Obama family could do worse than to design the White House Victory Garden with milpas and chinampas, making biochar from bamboo on the South Lawn, and using the blackwater from the West Wing to add nutrients to the system.

Whether you already have a permaculture design certificate or diploma, or are just interested in coming back in touch with the inner heart of nature, give a thought to traveling back to beyond beyond with us. Back to the source. Our mother needs help there, and you will be in good company.


Alcorn, J.B., 1990. Indigenous Agroforestry Systems in the Latin American Tropics, in Agroecology and Small Farm Development, Altieri M, and Hecht, SB eds.

Hemenway, T., 2003. Beyond Wilderness: Seeing the Garden in the Jungle, The Permaculture Activist No. 51 Winter 2003.

Nigh, R., 2008. Trees, Fire And Farmers: Making Woods and Soil in The Maya Forest, Journal Of Ethnobiology 28(2) Fall/Winter 2008.

This article was originally published in The Permaculture Activist No. 71 Spring 2009 and then updated for posting today.

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