Multistrata Agroforestry: Adapting to Climate Change

Maya Mountain Research Farm
Wednesday, 20th May 2020

Maya Mountain Research Farm use multi-level agroforestry to feed soil, create microclimates, grow a diversity of nutrients, prevent soil erosion and lock down carbon - an example for other countries in lowland humid tropics.

Maya Mountain Research Farm (MMRF) is located two miles up river from the Queq’chi Maya community of San Pedro Columbia. It sits in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, where the plains, stretching forth to the Caribbean, meet limestone hills. Most of the hills are carpeted with a mixture of old growth forest, to the north, and regenerative forest of early emerging species in patches of land that have been cleared or otherwise damaged close to us. The river issues forth from a series of springs up the valley.

In 1988 this was a degraded citrus and cattle farm. It was very cheap. There is no road and everything comes in by dory or by trail. Three years later, the citrus was in decline. The cattle were sold. I found myself on a damaged piece of land.

I took a fortuitous PDC at a neighboring farm in 1992, taught by Michael Pilarski, Chuck Marsh, Rick Valley, Jose Caballero and Mark Cohen, which gave me a new lens to look at the land. I started implementing what I had learned at the PDC by planting trees where there had been citrus and cattle, and creating mechanical and botanical barriers to retain soil.

In 1997 I started work at Toledo Cacao Growers Association (TCGA) for UK Based Green & Black’s, an organic/fairtrade chocolate company. We grew TCGA from 225 members to 750 by 2004. Our extension program was comprised of experienced cacao farmers, and we had an array of 'site specific extension officers'. I learned a lot from the farmers of TCGA. One of the things we observed was that field trips and farmer to farmer exchanges had better information transfer than classroom time. The birth of MMRF sprang from this observation.

I left TCGA in 2004, and formed MMRF as a training centre with an emphasis on biodiversity and food security. In 2006, we started offering PDCs, with teachers such as Toby Hemenway, Penny Livingston-Stark, Larry Santoyo, Albert Bates, Rhonda Baird, Cliff Davis, Starhawk, with a visit from Maddy Harland in 2017. We have provided over 180 scholarships for full 72 hour PDCs to Belizeans. Some of that has been supported by Government of Belize, some by LUSH Fund, donations from former students, and the balance by MMRF and the teachers we work with. Fifty percent of our scholarships have gone to women.

Celini Logan Nesbitt, my partner, and I live here full time. Celini was a pharmacist and her interest in medicine has been utilized to foster a gene bank of medicinal plants.

MMRF is a registered NGO, with a board of directors comprised of teachers, a business person, a mechanic, a restaurant owner and some farmers. Some are former Permaculture Design Course graduates.

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The farm as an example for others

Climate change has arrived. We see floods in the dry season, here, hard dry seasons, and dry wet seasons. Hydrological cycles have been broken. Forests that retained water in the landscapes are disappearing. The region, dependent on rain fed maize, is close to famine conditions. In neighboring Guatemala there is a five year drought and a series of crop failures. In some communities there is no potable water, and fecal pathogens and hunger contribute to up to 40% infant mortality. This fuels ongoing rural to urban migration and refugees because there are few opportunities when the land cannot produce. We address these issues with a fundamental shift in how we look at land use.

There are 950,000,000 to 1.1 billion acres of degraded agricultural land worldwide, like this farm was, land that is marginal for agriculture. At one time the farm was a sink of fertilizer for citrus, and the cattle land compacted and broken. Today the farm has hundreds of species of plants in a multistrata agroforestry system, and is lush, green and highly productive.

Observing and mimicking the patterns of regeneration, we used banana, papaya, chaya, pigeon pea and pineapple as early pioneer species. These build and repair soil while also providing yields in the first critical years. Instead of fighting succession and trying to create a static condition of a maize or rice monoculture, staples in the region, we are facilitating succession, and transforming marginal lands to productive polycyultures.

We use tropical staple trees like breadnut (Artocarpus camansi), breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophylla), ramon nut (Brossimum allicastrum), peach palm/pejibaya (Bactris gasipaes) and coconut as canopy species.

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Tropical staple tree crops have deep root systems to access moisture in periods of dryness. We observe that trees are able to handle inundation and drought, and are less fragile than short rooted grasses. They both mitigate climate change by drawing down carbon, and adapt to climate change by being able to handle vagaries in available moisture. They provide significant amounts of food at a favorable ratio of Energy Returned On Energy Invested.

With inga alley cropping, we facilitate succession and entropy in a three year sinusoidal cycle while producing fuel wood and maize. This has been a project that through our partners at Ya’axche Conservation Trust has been broadly implemented to reduce deforestation, provide fuel wood and maintain the traditional maize consumption in Maya communities.

We integrate tree legumes like Erythrina peoppogiana and E. berteroana, Samanaea saman, Pithecellobium arboreum and Enterolobium cyclocarpum, which spread their branches over the sub-canopy of marketable crops. Planning from design to details, we have created niches for high value crops like cacao, coffee, cardamom, vanilla, ginger and turmeric into the food forest. Wandering amongst this our chickens and ducks who convert insects and weeds into eggs and meat, and leave behind their manure. They retain nutrients that otherwise might wash off. We produce things for home consumption and marketable and medicinal crops, which we sell.

Some of our timber trees, psalmwood cedar, teak, mayflower, planted in the early 1990s, are ready to be harvested for lumber. We use crop residues, branches and deadwood, rice hulls, coconut husks, and sawdust for fuel in our biochar kiln, which is then cycled back to the farm. We obtain multiple yields.

More difficult to quantify are the very valuable ecosystem services the farm provides. The land sequesters carbon, retains soil and soil moisture, and provides habitat, similar to primary forest. How do we measure the benefits in a region where the population density doubles every 22 years (Guatemala, population 18,000,000) to 25 years (Belize, population 390,000). Repairing broken hydrological cycles and replicating ecosystem services is vitally important.

We've catalogued 175 species of birds on the land, we've seen jaguar, ocelot, puma and jaguarundi. The tapir, brocket deer, agouti and gibnut forage below the trees, the soil moisture content below the largest trees and the self pollenating vanilla all indicate some degree of ecosystem health.

Much of what we have learned here can be replicated across the nations of lowland humid tropics, many of which have some of the same issues we have been addressing, here.

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A little more about MMRF

MMRFs foundation is the ethics of permaculture. 
1. We care for earth by repairing land and creating non-extractive agricultural models which includes drawing down carbon and providing habitat, by obviating the need for diesel powered generators for water pumping and lights in rural communities.
2. We care for people through making composting toilets in the communities, and providing training in permaculture and renewable energy. We have installed two village level photovoltaic pumps, training their water boards, and photovoltaic lighting systems in 16 schools and clinics in rural communities. One project, working with Solar CITIES, is building biogas plants. Our prototype model is being tested, and we see it as a way to reduce respiratory and ocular diseases, especially among women in rural communities. We have leveraged our knowledge by sharing it with organizations who have larger target communities, increasing the impact of our those innovations.
3. We share our surplus through providing food, weekly, to an elderly feeding program for the last 15 years, and through probono training. To date we have provided around 180 scholarships for full 72 hour PDCs to Belizeans, including a year long PDC we provided for TumulKin School, an indigenous boarding school we have a long relationship with, and over 1000 Belizeans have visited our farm for education.

Maya Mountain Research Farm (http://mmrfbz.org) was one of the 20 finalists for the 2019 Permaculture Magazine Prize.

Useful links

More about MMRF: Apply Permaculture: applying permaculture to exhausted farmland

Permaculture Magazine launches third year of prize

How the garden works in educating children

Bioremediation and regeneration in oil-damaged Ecuador

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