Saturday, 23 January 2010

Matching Energy to Useful Outcomes at MMRF

Here at Maya Mountain Research Farm in the jungles of southern Belize, Chris and his small but dedicated team are managing an agroforestry system that ranges over 70 acres of land. As you can imagine they are spread thin. So over the course of one morning, I thought I would experiment with the concept of doing the least to achieve the most. In permaculture it's often a question of how best to match your energy expended to generate productive outcomes.

The rainforest is subject to torrential rainfall, there is a continuous flow of nutrients off the landscape. Most of the nutrients are locked up in the plants themselves rather than the soil which is prone to leaching. However in permaculture, we are seeking to create beneficial interactions around the systems we design. So, I turned my attention to a small stand of coffee plants with the idea to improve their vigour by setting up micro earth berms to capture and retain more moisture and nutrients. An earth berm is a mound of earth and organic matter placed on the lower side of a slope to create a mechanical barrier that will intercept nutrient flows.

The coffee stand is close to the house, beyond the chicken coop and on the way to the piggery. This is a zone of high activity and therefore any system implemented here has a good chance of benefitting from on going maintenance once I leave the farm. The house is located on an ancient Mayan plaza, chosen as the site is a plateau where water naturally flows away from. On several occasions over the previous two weeks, I spent time observing the water patterns in this area during rainy spells. My finer observations revealed where the leaf litter was accumulating, the depth of the silt trapped and the effectiveness of the breadnut tree buttress roots in halting further soil erosion.

Thanks to careful successional planting, this zone lent itself to the creation of a coffee stand. Initially, heavily planted out to banana, which produced biomass for soil conditioning and a quick return in bananas, subsequently breadnut has established itself  providing erosion control and is one of the species that have contributed to a closed canopy. These are ideal conditions for coffee to prosper in as they prefer the cool sheltered shade that the mature canopy provides. From within this zone, I realised that I could find all the materials I needed to create the earth berms and I set to work.

Firstly, I sourced heliconia (heliconia caribaea), an emergent palm species, to use as the mechanical interceptor. The nearby heliconia had been cut down to create a trail to access the cahune palm, as the fronds will make the roof of the piggery that we are currently building. From my experience with the deep litter chicken pen, heliconia will be sufficiently hardy as a barrier before it decomposes as useful biomass. To hold the mechanical interceptors in place, against the slope and erosional processes I required some stout stakes. I fashioned these from the sturdy stems of the coconut fronds. Coconut (cocos nucifera) was also interplanted in this zone and typically when a frond dies, it is slashed and dropped to recycle the nutrients.

I staked out the stacked heliconia in a “u” shape oriented down the slope for maximum effectiveness. I located and dug out a source of rich soil from a vaculative pond in the path of the  erosional flow. In no less than a breath, the brave ducks were under my spade eagerly hoovering up the worms and grubs that I had unearthed. This earth became the plug behind the barrier. To this I added fallen banana trunk, which provides a slow release of nutrients back to the soil. From further down the slope, I quickly raked up a big bag full of mulch comprising leaf litter and decomposing tree matter which I spread around the base of the tree. The mulch will trap moisture and supress weeds too. Almost before I had finished, the chickens had moved in, scratching up the leaf litter! I'm not concerned, as any manure deposited is a quick hit of nitrogen for the tree. On another occasion, I will plant arachis pintio, a shade tolerant nitrogen fixing creeper on the up side of the slope, that in time will cover the area. All these components an interactions will support the soil food web necessary for bacterial and fungal activity that will ultimately contribute to building soil fertility.

So, for the duration of one morning, I managed my efforts attempting to match the energy expended to useful outcomes. I have demonstrated a technique taken from my permaculture toolkit, which can be repeated by future farm visitors. In sustainable agriculture, translating human capital into biological capital, can determine how effective we are. This example highlights a low tech human scale solution that with incremental maintenance, and should result in the coffee crop benefiting from increased localised moisture retension, improved soil biology and protection from soil erosion.

Slow Boat to Belize

Well this is me signing off for the year (by the time this post gets out - heavily belated!) On a slow boat to Belize, on a week long cruise into the carribean landing at the southern most tip of the Belize barrier reef, the second biggest in the world. What a year it's been. This time last year, I was counting down the days before I said goodbye to the claustrophobic world of investment banking in London. I've packed in adventure in four different continents and broadened my horizons to include yoga in India, learning salsa and Spanish in central America and deepening my understanding of permaculture.

Anyway, back to the trip. In some great company we explored some of the cayes in the south of Belize. It was a relaxing trip although being tossed around on a small catamaran was a queazy experience. It was worth it though, there was plenty of time for snorkelling on the reef. I enjoyed the best crab claw of my life pulled up from the sea depths fresh that same day. I also extended my camera to its maximum and photographed things that lurk in the deep. But my favourite encounter that no camera could capture was a series of Mexican standoffs I had with a family of cuttlefish. So alien and so brave facing up to me every time I followed them around. Cuttlefish glide through the water with such grace and effortlessness, they have an other worldly quality about them. That being said, we all want to see a pictures of sharks, right? Well let me oblige.....

The Ijatz Organic Coffee Cooperative

The Ijatz cooperative is possibly the best demonstration of the transformative power of permaculture in Guatemala. The site in San Lucas Toliman near Lake Atitlan was purchased at low cost since the parish council considered the land to be of low value. Previously, it was a swampy bog inundated with refuse and flood water from the surrounding hills.

In classic permaculture style, within the problem lay the seeds of the solution. The deforestation due to conventional agriculture in these surrounding hills has caused soil erosion and during the rainy season much of this rich volcanic black top soil is washed downstream. This annual bounty has been redirected through the Ijatz site using a sequence of channels and sink holes, which in turn slows the water flow enabling the nutrient rich humus to be captured and stored on site. The earth has been moulded to create slopes, edges and contours essential for increased growing opportunity.

During the dry season, any rainfall is held in the pond sequence maintaining the local water table which is the source for the hundreds of trees and plants. While the flora perpetually contributes biomass to improve soil fertility, a micro climate suitable for growing has developed, in what is essential a few acres on the edge of town. Prior to the establishment of the Ijatz project, over one hundred homes were annually flooded in the immediate vicinity. Currently, the site can receive flood water to the depth of more than a metre during the wet season. A perfect demonstration of a multifunctional permaculture design element, the banana circle has provided the solution. Acting as a pump, that most excellent of pioneer species, the banana simply sucks up and holds this water. The spaces between the rubbery concentric rings of a banana tree are simply saturated in water. The centre of the circle becomes a compost heap for any site prunings while the worms of the vermicomposting stations make short shrift work of sections of banana trunk. The composted output is another useful income stream for the coop. Of course, let us not forget natures own delicious potassium stick - the banana itself! All this, while the local community benefits from dry homes throughout the rainy season. Which in turn satisfies one of the cornerstone ethics of permaculture: people care – positively affecting the local community.

The project is only thirteen years in the making and boasts a diverse range of trees and plants that are reach every level of the canopy. Timber is harvested and the bamboo stands are about 6m tall. There are a number of guava, grapefruit, lime and lemon fruit trees. A vine layer producing a vegetable called güisquil (sechium edule) when boiled is similar in texture and taste to a tender swede or turnip. There are several other local tropical plants that contribute roots or leaves to the kitchen table. The annually deposited soil is then built up to form raised beds for growing vegetables. My three week stint centred around reinstating the vegetable and herb beds preparing them for fresh seedlings including lettuce, coriander, frijoles (beans), parsley, celery and radish. This soil food web is teaming with life and I encountered countless worms, spiders and other small creatures. Thankfully, the nesting cobra we stumbled across wrapped itself around Pancho's arm (the head gardener). No harm done - sadly only true for Pancho!

The core focus of the Ijatz cooperative is coffee production. On the final day of my visit, the ladies of the cooperative harvested fifty kilos of coffee beans ready for processing. However, they collectively own several plots of land on the slopes of the now extinct Volcán Tolimán. Through the cooperative, the workers have generated a stable income which has funded educational programmes about child care and nutrition. They also have discussions to understand where their high value product sits in the open market. I was invited to describe the drinking habits of Europeans. My talk was graciously received even though my Spanish is woefully short of adequate.

If you are interested in volunteering your time and energy to the assist the Ijatz project and you have a command of Spanish language you can contact them directly at otherwise I can advise you. Volunteer opportunities exist throughout the year.

Monkeying around at Semuc Champey

Apologies, as this article is way way overdue. AHEM....... I've been experiencing debilitating technical difficulties, then there was Christmas and New Year to consider, and before that I went on a sailing jaunt......ok, now I'm rambling!

The second weekend we took off while studying Spanish landed us in Semec Champey for a bit of fun in the jungle. We wondered through a cave system by candle light, tubing downstream and monkeying around in the water. That was inbetween an electric storm and a hike through the rainforest. When it did stop raining, we explored the river system that is made up of a series of turquoise blue ponds and a waterfall. Oh to have had an indestructable camera, this was sheer exhilaration! Scaling down the waterfall, plunging into the waterfall and jumping from 4 or 5 metres up. Before clambering back up thankfully our guides Carlos and Jose looked after us. Guatemalan people make such good teachers and guides, it seems to come naturally to them. I think it's a combination of kindess and patience. Gautemala is a great place to learn a new language.