Apply Permaculture: From Exhausted Farmland to Diverse Food Forest

Christopher Nesbitt
Friday, 23rd January 2015

Christopher Nesbitt explains how applying permaculture design to the hills of southern Belize, he has created a truly diverse food forest that feeds his family, his animals and the local community and also supplies timber and medicines.

My partner, Celini Logan, and I manage a small NGO called Maya Mountain Research Farm in the hills of southern Belize. The farm is located 2 kilometers off road, up river from San Pedro Columbia, the largest Queq'chi Maya community in Belize, set amongst the ruins of a classic period Maya site.

Everyday I walk beneath the shade of the trees, looking for food above me and food that has fallen to the ground. It is a forest that I know very intimately. I have been growing it for the last 25 years on an old citrus and cattle farm that I bought cheaply in 1988, when I was 22 years old. I took a PDC with Michael Pilarski, Rick Valley, Chuck Marsh, Mark Cohen and Jose Caballero in 1991, and started thinking about how best to apply permaculture principles to my land. I decided to replicate form and function of primary habitat, emulating rainforest in my farm. We now manage over 10 hectares of land out of 28 hectares.

From my hill top third-floor bedroom window I can see my food forest: avocado, breadnut, bay cedar, caimito, cedar, wild ficus, guanacaste, mango, mayflower, samwood, peach palm, coconut, rose apple, malay apple, guava, mame sapote, bread fruit, rollinia, jack fruit, several species of spondias, large Erythrina trees, teak, several species of annonaceae and many more tree species spreading out below me. My house and other buildings at Maya Mountain Research Farm are powered by roof mounted photovoltaic systems, and a photovoltaic pump and rain water system provides us with our water.

When I walk out of my door, after I pass under the trellis of Sechium edule, passion fruit, flying potato*, Malibar spinach and luffa between the roof of our kitchen and the main building where I live, I am surrounded by my forest. My food forest stands next to timber species like teak, samwood, cedar and mayflower, and trees like Guazuma ulmifolia, which are used only as fuel wood. Most of these trees are seasonal, which means abundance for parts of the year. In mango season we have tonnes of mango. In avocado season, avocado. Part of what we do is to make wines and vinegars, and donate our surplus to an elderly feeding program we have supported for the last nine years. Our pigs are also fed the surplus.

Applying Design to The Site

Herbaceous perennials, like banana, cocoyam, cassava and papaya are liberally deployed in the pioneer phase, when we move into a new area, as are crops like pineapple, lemongrass and vetiver, all of which are planted on contour or in V or U patterns open to the hill around target species for our future food forest. Pineapple gives us yields in terms of food, and we ferment the fruit and make wines and vinegars. These botanical barriers help to retain soil on site, with deposits of washed down biomass accumulating with the soil, increasing habitat for soil microorganisms like bacteria and fungi, and increasing the capacity to retain soil moisture in our pronounced dry season.

Mechanical barriers, like swales and open Vs created by laying banana stems around target species – the Mascarenhas Mulching Method – also help to build and retain soil. Leguminous tree species fix nitrogen. Erythrina, guanacaste and rain tree tower over the farm in several locations. Hummingbirds flit between them when they are in flower, while smaller trees like the Bauhinias and Leucaena stand in the mid canopy, attracting parrots for their seeds, alongside mayflower and cortez trees. Below them the Pride of Barbados attracts pollinators with its bright flowers, and below that the ground has patches or Arachis pintoi and Desmodium, ground hugging leguminous cover crops that carpet the farm.

Food Forest Diversity

Amongst these we see numerous species of medicinal plants as well as marketable crops, like coffee and several cultivars of heirloom cacao, which have ready markets, and vanilla, an endemic genus that has several species in Belize, most of which are here on the farm. In the pioneer areas, we do spend a lot of time working. We chop, plant, weed, thin, harvest, and plant some more, taking advantage of the high amount of light exposure in the early phase to plant annual crops and pioneer species. Often we have corn, beans and pumpkin going out at the same time as pioneer species and trees that will make our future food forest. Annual crops are important locally. Maya people eat corn. As productive as agroforestry is, it is never going to displace corn in the diet where we live. Corn is the leading cause of deforestation in southern Belize.

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View of agroforestry system from roof of Main Building. Banana, caimito, erythrina, mulberry, coconut, avocado, guava, annona, rollinia, tabebuia, gliricidia, cocoyam, bilimbi. 

We have a half acre trial plot on Inga alley cropping, modeled on the work of Mike Hands and the Inga Foundation in Honduras. This uses a leguminous tree, Inga edulis, planted on a 50cm spacing in rows 3m apart. At two years the trees are pollarded1, and the leaves are left for mulch. The wood is then used for fuel. We grow corn, beans, pumpkin and sesame in those areas and have seen very impressive results in corn production. After the harvest the land is fallowed and moved on to the next plot. After two years you can return. The technique eliminates the need for slash and burn, and we are hoping to expand this system by 2 hectares in the next year.

This is not our aim, though. Trying to maintain a static state of annual crops means spending a lot of energy and time on fighting two things, entropy – where systems break down, and succession – where biological communities move forward as new organisms find niches and take advantage of opportunities. We choose instead to focus on managing succession for most of the farm from open landscape to an agroforestry system that provides food, fiber, medicinals and marketable crops. Once the canopy gets to a suitable size and offers sufficient shade, we fill in the subcanopy area with marketable crops like cacao, coffee, cardamom, vanilla, tumeric and ginger, utilising space and providing additional yields.

My Foraging Day

I am now able to spend more time foraging for food, walking the land, looking for fallen coconuts and breadnuts, and picking ripe fruits like pineapple, banana, and papaya. I spend about an hour or two a day foraging, some of which is for the pigs: peachpalm, coconut, breadfruit, plantain, banana, guava, cocoyam and cassava. I walk the land based on seasonality, checking what trees have fruit ready, where I can find fuel wood, or marketable crops. Today I looked for the flash of color of broken breadnut pods, the tell tale sign of a ripe pod, broken open on impact with the forest floor. Breadnut can weigh up to 1kg and a mature tree can give 800 fruits per year.

We have eight older trees. This morning I collected 12kg of breadnut and 15kg of peach palm, some will feed my pigs tomorrow, and some we will eat. Tumeric and ginger can be found below the canopy, amongst the cacao, coffee and cardamom. I collect waha leaf for making tamales (a traditional Mesoamerican dish made of masa (a starchy dough, usually corn-based), which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper). Mango, golden plum, annona, soursop, cowsop, tu'kib, guava, all of these trees produce food for us across the seasons.

Some areas of the farm have a thick carpet of Arachis pintoi, a perennial ground cover that blankets the ground with thick green webs of plants, fixing nitrogen and choking out weeds. This makes the area low maintenance. It is here we look on the forest floor for fallen food. An avocado or a mango might roll down the hill if the land was bare, this carpet slows the movement of the fallen food, and we can collect it more easily.

Animals that Celni and I raise include rabbits, pigs, ducks and chickens. Our chickens are currently in a pen as we have had a large cat, a jaguar or an ocelot, eating our birds when they free range. Almost all of their food comes directly from the land, and all of their manure is composted with biochar2 and returned to the land to foster healthy soil biota.

The farm has volunteer species that are useful to us, things like pacaya palm, and chikai, are brought in by birds. Chikai produces an edible flower that tastes like a cross between artichoke and asparagus. It is one of the seasonally important foods of the Queq'chi and Mopan Maya of Belize, but has become less important because of availability of cheap imported cabbage. This morning I collected 1kg of it beneath the trees. We eat it regularly, and we associate it with avocado as their seasons overlap. When harvesting, I bring the leaves for my chickens and ducks and they eat it greedily.

In the newer areas, we find the pioneer species like papaya, banana, cocoyam, cassava and pineapple, and I walk amongst the younger trees that will make up new sections of food forest, looking to harvest from those planted to obtain a yield within a year or two. In our rainy season we eat a lot of chaya, being a green unaffected by insects. It is high in protein too, and prized among the Maya as medicinal.

Retirement Fund

As time has passed, much of the cultivated areas have taken the form and function of primary habitat. We are sequestering carbon, acting as a carbon sink and retaining soil and soil moisture, which is important for the waterways of Belize, especially where we live as the river is our only way in besides walking. Many of the trees are timber species, and as I get older, they increase in value. They will help me in my retirement, or be an asset my children will inherit when I am dead and gone. Our property functions as a biological corridor between the Columbia Forest Reserve, a vast tract of unbroken rainforest stretching off deep into the Maya Mountains to our north, and the Columbia Branch of Rio Grande, our southern boundary.

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Belizean students learning about agroecology.

In the dry season there is no surface water for many miles off into the bush. The food forest is ideal habitat, and we see many species of birds, reptiles and mammals. The reptiles include skinks, salamanders, snakes, iguanas, frogs, toads and turtles. The mammals that pass through our land include white lipped and collared peccaries, brocket deer, possums, tapir, ground moles, armadillo, rabbits, fox, kinkajou, agouti, gibnut and large cats. The large cats present a challenge as they will get used to easy food, our chickens and ducks, and our dogs. The cats include ocelet, marguay, jaguarundi, puma and jaguar. They are the keystone predators here, and as more habitat is lost, they increasingly seek out easy prey. This is an example of productive land providing ecosystem services of carbon sequestration, soil and soil moisture retention and habitat creation, which will be increasingly important for Belize as the population density of Belize doubles every 25 years. The fact that systems like this are highly productive, in terms of calories of food and fuel produced to calories expended, means that we are able to produce marketable crops ranging from fruit to cacao to piglets – an attractive option for farmers working towards the future.

Such techniques offer a slew of solutions to existing problems in places in the lowland humid tropics. It is not THE solution, but it is many solutions to many problems.

1 Cut off the top and branches of a tree to encourage new growth at the top

2 Biochar is charcoal made in a certain way and produced with the intention of using it as a soil additive.

Further resources

Watch: Permaculture: Pioneering Amazon rainforest regeneration

Costa Rica's alternative farming

Chinampas: the art of gardening on wetlands


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