Sustainable Tropical Agriculture Systems in Southern Belize
by Albert Bates
Getting to the Maya Mountain Research Farm in southern Belize is its own wild side adventure. You can fly or bus to Punta Gorda Town on the coast and then bus or taxi up to San Pedro Columbia, a little village in the highlands of the Maya Mountains that is a jumping off point for river travel.
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 many small villages scattered at the edges of forests and along rivers look nearly the same today as they looked in 1926, 1826, or 1726.
From San Pedro, a boy with a dugout “dory” cedar canoe poles you up river past Lubaantun for two miles until you reach the shallow bend with the tall stands of bamboo on the starboard shore.
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 karstified, 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.
Chris Nesbitt is a sort of lanky John Malkovich with a scraggly beard and a wry sense of humor. He decided to buy a piece of land on the river back in 1988 after he left Antioch College at 19 and had been in Belize two years. At the time, the land was in cattle and citrus, as are many of his neighbor’s farms today.
Chris 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. In 2004, he established a gene bank of 250 wild vanilla vines and began keeping growth records on them.
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 beans requires the hand-pollination of each vanilla flower. The resulting bean must remain nine 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 nine months to complete.
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 five acres.
Chris 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.
For centuries Europeans called the style of agriculture practiced in this region “slash and burn” because they failed to see the forest for the trees. Being used to property rights, squared and manicured fields, and the medieval 4-crop rotation system, they failed to appreciate a style of agriculture developed over 10,000 years by peoples who did not believe in private property, extracted their food from partnerships with natural ecosystems, and created the world’s first sustainable agriculture. They endowed their soils with so much fertility that when the native people were removed (by disease, famine and slavery) the replacing forests sequestered so much carbon it caused a Little Ice Age back in Europe.
Foothills of Maya Mountains, Toledo District
The genius of the Mayan agroforestry system is that while it farms notoriously poor tropical soils, it uses no fertilizer but produces three times the food yield as European style agriculture. Sadly, international aid organizations are in Belize industriously teaching children that the old way is no good and what they need to do is get with the European style of farming, which is of course how Belize became impoverished in the first place.
Ironically, if best management practices of the type employed by traditional Maya were widely used, by 2030 up to six gigatons of CO2e could be sequestered each year, which equals the current emissions from global agriculture as a whole.
There is of course a way to abuse milpa forestry, like when one continuously burns a cornfield to prolong the corn and bean part of the cycle. This is an artifact of the monetization of food by colonial cultures, and the economic exploitation that forces farmers to grow corn and beans for money rather than produce less commercially monetized fruits, nuts, cacao, wood and ecosystem services from the soil recovery parts of the “slash and burn” milpa cycle.
Chris 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 Chris’s children, Esperanza and Zephir, through college when they are ready.
Chris 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 is constructing a tank and pond aquaculture system.
On the stones outside the kitchen, under the roof and out of the rain, Chris 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.
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.
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 Chris has learned to hold his annual 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.
Squeezing sugar cane. The entire press was made using a machete.
Belize has 574 reliably reported species of birds. About half never leave the tropics. The chorus 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 Chris has to put the chickens into the coop and bar 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 these villages have been using a very effective and productive way to farm in the tropics while building soil and sequestering carbon. In season they control-burn a section of forest. 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 is typically 15 years, but could be double that time in a milpa of particularly fruitful abundance. Closed canopy forest is the most productive part of the cycle. Then, after 15 to 30 years, a patch is again cleared and the cycle renewed.
In sharp contrast to traditional methods, 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. Chris wants to demonstrate that the old ways were better, and with cultivars available now, the land can produce far more than a corn or bean patch can, while restoring fertility at the same time.