Tropical agroforestry at Maya Mountain Research Farm

If you want to design something sustainable, whether it’s a house, a product, a process or something else, you have to understand the impacts of your design outside your field. This is why I’m taking the time to visit and volunteer even in projects that have nothing to do with architecture, at least on the surface. One such project I recently volunteered with is Maya Mountain Research Farm (MMRF) in southern Belize. MMRF is a non-profit organization and permaculture demonstration farm with a focus on agroforestry, i.e. the integration of trees into a farming system. Agroforestry was the key to recovering previously damaged soil at MMRF, and now the farm is showing the rest of Belize how it too can use agroforestry and permaculture to improve food security, while simultaneously protecting the environment.

Agroforestry at MMRF
This may look like a regular tropical forest, but in reality it is a planted forest that produces food, fuel and timber while functioning like a natural part of the ecosystem.

Repairing damaged soil through agroforestry

When MMRF founder Christopher Nesbitt bought the land that would become MMRF in 1988, he soon discovered it was far from ideal farmland. The site had previously been a citrus and cattle farm, and as a result the soil was damaged and deprived of nutrients while the citrus trees were at the end of their lifespan. After observing the land and learning about permaculture, Chris turned to agroforestry, hoping it could make the land productive again.

Trees take time to grow, and so an agroforestry system takes several years and stages to mature. The first stage is planting pioneer species such as banana, papaya and pigeon pea. These plants give a yield already in a year or two, but more importantly they repair damaged soil by loosening it and by fixing nitrogen. Long-term species such as mango, coconut and avocado should also be planted early, and after five years they too start producing yield. Timber producing trees add variety and are an investment into the future. Once the trees have grown enough to provide shade, it’s time to start planting crops like coffee and cacao that can become a valuable source of income.

Harvested bananas at MMRF
Bananas are one of the most important crops in agroforestry, because banana trees produce harvests quickly while helping improve soil quality.

Slowly the land at MMRF was transformed with the help of agroforestry. Today all the different trees on the farm not only produce food, fuel and timber, but they also prevent soil erosion and retain moisture in the landscape, which makes it possible to grow crops even during the dry season. Below the forest canopy there are other productive plants like cacao, and further below the ground even more crops like pineapple and ginger. The variety of crops makes the ecosystem healthier and the farm more resilient to risks like droughts and diseases.

Pineapple planted along contour lines
Planting pineapple on contour lines prevents soil erosion and helps accumulate nutrients that would otherwise be washed away by the rain – while of course producing pineapples.

But just because the forest has been planted doesn’t mean it is unnatural – in fact, quite the opposite. The forest provides habitat, retains soil and sequesters carbon, all of which are benefits to the wider ecosystem. MMRF is particularly a treat for birdwatchers, and one visiting group of birdwatchers found 150 species of birds on the farm.

Daily life at Maya Mountain Research Farm

After nearly 30 years large sections of the farm work basically independently, but the diversity of the farm means there’s still always something to do. The work varies seasonally, and my stay at MMRF coincided with the beginning of the dry season in Belize. It was time to prepare the farm for the new season, and we worked a lot in the vega, a vegetable garden that is located next to the river. The river floods the vega during the rainy season, which makes the soil extremely fertile and moist. Since there was still some rain, it was a good time to plant vegetables for the dry season.

Garden at MMRF
This seasonally flooded garden by the river has rich soil and it is a great place to plant vegetables for the dry season.

The other main activity was harvesting whatever food happened to be in season. Except for staples like rice, almost everything we ate came from the farm. Breadnut, bananas, turmeric, cacao, and coconuts were just some of the crops we harvested from the forest, along with vegetables from the gardens. During my stay we also harvested and processed coffee, and all the work that went into peeling each coffee bean by hand certainly gave me a new appreciation for each cup.

Peeling coffee at MMRF
One of the activities I took part in at MMRF was processing coffee from beginning to end: harvesting, peeling, drying, roasting – and of course drinking.

Improving lives and food security in Belize

MMRF is one of the oldest running permaculture and agroforestry projects in Central America, which makes it a great place to observe a mature and functioning agroforestry system in action. Over the years MMRF has evolved from a private farm into a demonstration farm that hosts interns, students, volunteers and other visitors from all ove the world. During my stay MMRF was also getting ready for its 12th annual permaculture design course where international and Belizean students come together to learn about the principles of permaculture in an ideal setting.

Herb spiral under construction
MMRF hosts volunteers and interns like myself who can also do independent projects on the farm, like this herb spiral that was started by other interns during my stay.

MMRF is also a registered non-profit organization whose work reaches outside the boundaries of the farm. In fact, with so many projects going on both at the farm and elsewhere, one of the main challenges at MMRF is finding time for it all. MMRF works mainly with rural communities, installing solar panels in schools and solar water pumps in villages. Promoting solar energy in Belize is getting constantly more and more important as energy use is growing fast while oil production is going down.

At the end of the day, the farm is the foundation of all the work done by MMRF. Over 500 Belizeans have visited the farm over the years, seeing for themselves an alternative food production system that is resilient, improves food security and doesn’t result in deforestation and destruction of soil. While older farmers are used to their habits, the younger generation understands the potential of agroforestry and how planting trees can be an investment for the future. Slowly, one farmer at a time, MMRF is helping drive development in Belize into a more resilient and ecologically stable direction.

Planted teak tree
This teak tree was planted just before my visit, and it will take a couple decades before the timber is ready to be harvested – making the tree a great investment for the future.

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