Reviving the lost and ancient practice of forest gardens

When walking around a forest, woodland or rainforest, we witness a body of organisms cooperating, communicating and co-existing. Notable aspects are always in play. Beneath the canopy, shrubs, grasses and other plants entwining at different heights. Dead matter falls to the floor, nourishing and protecting the roots below. Beneath this lies an underground mycelium network that could resemble the synapses of the human brain, it operates as a communicator between the plants, alerting each other of any threats, illness or disease. Above the canopy, trees have the power to create rain.

This type of ecosystem is considered the most productive on the planet, yet when it comes to food production, we are burning down to make way for monocultures, one the single biggest environmental disaster comes from feeding ourselves.

Clearing vast areas of woodland for monoculture farming requires billions of gallons of water every year, the use of pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified hybrids. In an attempt to control nature, we are killing it.

As Devandra Shiva, points out in her book, ‘who feeds the world?’ , ‘Whilst food is our main source nourishment and cure of illness, it has become the single biggest health problem in the world, with obesity plaguing some and malnourishment a cruel reality for the others.”

“the reality is that only around 30% of the food that we eat comes from industrial farms. The other 70% comes from small-scale family farms working on small plots of land.”

Alternative, indigenous farming methods have nourished and sustained empires long before our existence. From the Mayans across central America, to the Egyptians. Food forests have always been a primary method of food production simply because they are close to home and easy to maintain. Whilst the names differ across continents, from ‘home gardens’ in Zambia, Nepal and India, to “forest gardens” in South East Asia and “kitchen gardens” across the Caribbean.

Although such techniques have often been invaded, encroached on and replaced with far more invasive and time-consuming techniques, the revival of this ancient type of food-forestry could be a vital part to sustaining our existence on this planet, and it all starts with small, local farmers who are the less recognised feeders of the world.  

I speak with a Q’eqchi community that is currently in the early development stages of changing their agricultural system from slash and burn to one that is sustained by agroforestry. This community is based in a small town called Tatítan, deep in the jungle of the Livingston, situated in the north-eastern district of Guatemala.

The locals are currently working with a not not-for-profit organization called Contour Lines, who have already planted 900 fruit trees and 1800 support trees, including Guama (Inga), thanks to the support of a crowdfunding mission, which is still in need of donations to help continue the project: https://www.gofundme.com/f/ContourLines

“Before this project began, I was going to leave.” A 23-year-old farmer named Juan tells me a story that is a global reality for the next generation of disappearing farmers.

“When young people start seeing projects like this happen in their communities, they might decide to stay. Because the truth is, our staple crops, such as corn, aren’t growing like they used to. People my age want to leave the village and find work in the cities instead.”

Whilst the role of women is often less recognized around the world, they are also a driving force behind the production of food in Guatemala. Flory Coc, aged 42, has worked on farms her entire life. She explains how the project has affected their lives:

The women of Guatemala, especially my ethnic Q’eqchi group, are engaged in making or cultivating the land as long as I have the land to do, and this is very beneficial to us because we are deeply connected to our land… Women are very active to support their husbands and daughters to help their parents. I can assure you that women are the power behind cultivating food. Some women even slash as part of the milpa cycle. Growing food forests makes our lives a lot easier for us because it involves less physical labor.”

Flory goes on:

“We are currently trying to look for an alternative solution. If we are dedicated to only one crop, as a monoculture, it can fail due to lack of fertilizer, which is expensive. In using this method, the earth loses its nutrients and we also have to use insecticides. Through this project, we are changing that and encouraging the growth of more plants, which also feeds us as a community and we can use the same plot of land each time. Women and children are actively involved in this process too, the whole community is part of this transition.”

In planting a range of fruit trees and vegetables, the community have been able to incorporate a better variety of food into their diet, but also creates fruits that farmers can sell. Another member of the community explains how day-to-day life is enhanced, simply by incorporating more fruit into their diet:

“This benefits those of us working, and the whole community itself. For example, because we are planting avocado, we are going to eat avocado for breakfast tomorrow. Because we are planting mango, likewise, we can have mango juice as a drink instead of Cola. Same for rambutan, which is also a food very nutritious for us, and the children like it a lot and us as well. That is going to benefit us greatly.” – Juan, 26

Since Guatemala is one of South America’s poorest countries, according to the World Bank, around 60% per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, around 23 per cent (mostly indigenous groups) live in extreme poverty. Small projects, such as this one, have proven to be effective ways of fighting the some of the worst areas of poverty. Although change desperately needs to come from the government itself, in creating small-scale change, communities are able to empower themselves, and provide an example for others to do the same. At the very least, families can keep themselves fed whilst having something to sell in the background too.

The Inga

In a conversation with Mike Hands, a scientist who has dedicated his life to preventing the use of slash and burn farming by providing an alternative use of farming called Inga Alley Cropping, he talks about the discoveries that led him to set up the Inga Foundation, a not-for-profit group that supports farmers across the world to transition to alternative techniques using Inga trees.

Hands describes how “vast areas of forest arebeing replaced by nothing but grass.” For years he was plagued with question about why slash and burn is only successful for the first few harvests before the land became barren, and why do farmers rely upon this technique when it is destines for crops to eventually fail? It soon became obvious that in desperation, farmers turn to this method since there were no viable alternatives:

Based on the multi-award winning feature documentary UP IN SMOKE by Adam Wakling. For further information please visit ingafoundation.org

“In the humid tropics there are no sustainable agricultures, this was the problem I was trying to address in the 80s. Why was this so? You’ve got the most biologically most successful ecosystem in the rainforest and yet people are turning to slash and burn that doesn’t work, it maintains people in poverty.”

Today, around 300 million farmers rely upon slash and burn for clearing way for monocultures. Since 40% of the planets carbon is stored in vegetation, it poses a much more affective combat to climate, than perhaps, electric cars. Forests are also the great creators of rain, and in creating more forest space, areas that are prone to drought could be alleviated – to a certain degree.  

Inga, a delicious fruit also known as Guama is a typical, yet less recognised companion plant with foods that typically grow in central America and highly consumed in the west, such as coffee and cocoa. By helping farmers secure their harvests with Inga plantation, Mike explains how communities are able to produce more sustainable and productive harvests “that ticks away in the background and can be something that farmers sell.” In working with communities in areas such as Pico Bonito National park in Honduras, the use of Inga Alley Cropping is also helping prevent the further destruction of some of the last primary remaining rainforest on earth.

Since Inga is a nitrogen-fixer and fruiting tree, it provides nutrients for the soil, protects roots and also acts as a natural pest control. It also provides greater food security than slash and burn, since it doesn’t degrade the soil and allows farmers to reuse the same plot repeatedly.

Whilst new crops such as beans can penetrate through the earth, the mulch from the Inga tree smothers weeds and invasive grasses, which saves time for the farmers, but also stops them from having reply upon the use of herbicides, which are not only expensive, but also pose a risk to human and environmental health. The Inga tree also provides firewood which, in turn, prevents families from encroaching into the forests for logs.

Since many of the plots that Hand’s works with surrounds primary rainforest has been heavily degraded due to the use of slash and burn, his scientific research involves rock sulphate to help develop the growth of Inga on soils that have been degraded after generations of intensive farming methods, since “not even Inga can find nutrients where there is none”, Hands admits.

The implementation of rock phosphate came as a break-through in his research into how the soil of the rainforest can sustain life, and why slash and burn was able to produce a layer of topsoil that contained nutrients, although not for long. In implementing his research into the lives of the communities, Hands was at first doubtful that it would work on the ground, but the results paid off, he tells me:

“For the first time, people were able to grow crops again. This was a breakthrough because what we had to say to the farmers was that we would give them everything they needed and then they would have to wait two years before getting a successful harvest, and even knowing that they still wanted the system.”

Adapting towards changing weather patterns

Around the world, farmers are directly experiencing the changes in our weather patterns, from an increased likelihood of drought, followed by increased rainfall. Staple crops, such as rice and corn are incredibly sensitive to such changing weather patterns.

The UN has already warned about the effects that will be facing Africa over the coming years, who reply heavily upon climate sensitive crops, such as rice, as a staple food in their diet. Last year, Cylone Idai was recorded as one of the worst tropical storms to have hit Africa. It came as a grave warning about what might become a more frequent occurrence in the future.

In 2018, central America saw a surge of migrants that came as a ‘caravan’ to the US -boarder from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Whilst speculation in the mainstream media and amongst politicians focused on rising levels of gang violence in the area, the less spoken factor was in fact, climate change. Crops in this region have been failing, numerous farmers have abandoned their plots in desperation, fleeing to the city where rampant poverty surges violence.

In Mike Hands case, the implantation of Inga was successful in helping crops withstand extreme weather conditions. He recalls an El Nino Climatic event las year one that, ‘ripped every peak of conventional cropping on those sloped and followed by 9 weeks of drought, of which most harvests had failed, the only crops that had survived where in the Inga Alleys.’ By seeing this, families are naturally adopting the Inga tree as part of their home gardens, Hands continues:

“We cannot cope with the demand of farmers who need helping transition away from the use of slash and burn, we are now witnessing a critical mass of families that are spreading on their own, we now have around 700 families implementing Inga.”

Forest gardens are considered small-scale solutions, yet history paints a different picture. Having sustained entire civilizations, this doesn’t mean going back to the ‘old ways’ but rather using the knowledge we have accumulated over billions of years to sustain our very own existence. Small groups are implementing food forests as big-term solutions, but they lack recognition and most importantly, funding.

Whilst food forests have proven to have sustained populations for decades, we turn towards less efficient, more environmentally destructive techniques because we are misinformed. We deem commercial agriculture as necessary to feed a growing population. With changing climate patterns and the current agriculture system driving poverty and world hunger to more extreme levels than ever before, the revival of ancient agroforestry is happening plot by plot. But the trees planted today will bear the fruits for the generations that come after us, in the same way that our ancestors food forests still feed us today.

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