I’ve spent the last two weeks at Maya Mountain Research Farm in the Toledo District of Belize. Toledo is the least developed district in Belize. Until recently, there was only a bumpy dirt road that connected the region to the rest of the country. Toledo is mostly made up of Mayan villages, including the Kekchi-Maya community of San Pedro Columbia where I now live. Well, sort of. The Farm is actually 2 miles upriver from the village. So basically, I live on the far, far outskirts of a rural Mayan village in the most marginalized district of a small Caribbean country whose total population is only about 370,000 people. Let’s just say I’m pretty isolated.
My arrival instructions from the international airport in Belize City were: Take a five hour bus to Punta Gorda, spend the night, then take another 1 hour local bus to the village of San Pedro Columbia. Once in San Pedro Columbia, “Find Jorge” to take me upriver by dory (a simple dugout canoe). Just…find Jorge. No last name. No address. No phone number. Find Jorge. When I anxiously pressed for more specifics, I was told not to worry, he’s easy to find. If he’s not around, one of his five son’s will be….surely. From the very start I could see this next chapter is going to be a much slower pace of life in a much, much smaller community than I’m used to.
To call this place a “Farm”, might give the wrong impression. Rather, think “Food Forest”. Maya Mountain Research Farm is a 70-acre property, with about 30-acres designed and maintained as a functioning agroforestry system. Agroforestry is just a fancy word for food forest [agro (agriculture)+ forestry (forest)]. The goal is to establish a food forest which functions as an ecosystem. Then all that’s left for you to do is some maintenance and to forage for yummy delights in your own garden of eden 🙂
The remaining 40 acres is basically wilderness (Zone 5 if we’re using Permaculture lingo). What’s cool about that, is that it acts as a corridor and natural habitat for hundreds of different species of local wildlife. Tons of different plants and birds (including an owl who’s cry sounds tragically similar to that of a young lady screaming for help and kept me up terrified for my first few nights here) and even bigger animals like jaguars, pumas, and tapir (oh my). And above all, we’ve got a wonderfully biodiverse insect kingdom which I’m becoming intimately acquainted with, as evidenced by the war zone on the back of my legs. Joking aside, there’s incredible biodiversity here and a great example of how an ecosystem functions when left untouched, right here on the property. Even more exciting, behind the Farm outstretches the Columbia River Forest Reserve, one of Central America’s largest undisturbed rainforests. When trying to design sustainable agricultural systems, what could be better than having natural wilderness to observe right at your backdoor. It’s a permaculture paradise.
The portion of the Farm that is “farmed” doesn’t look like any farm I’ve been to before. In fact, to the untrained eye, it easily looks like overgrown jungle. But if you look closer, you see hundreds of different types of edible plant species. FOOD! Taller canopy trees bearing mango, avocado, breadnut (related to breadfruit, but with lots of nutty seeds inside), Rollinia (a fruit I’ve just learned about but that’s quickly risen to the top of my list), cacao, coconut, guava, peach palm, and more. Beneath that are papaya, banana, cassava, corn, etc. Lower to the ground there’s even more: ginger, turmeric, cocoyam (in the taro family), pineapple, and a wide variety of vegetables and herbs.
One of the reasons I decided to study permaculture in Central America was because of the climate similarities to Hawaii and the overlap in tropical plants that grow. It’s exciting to build on the plant repertoire I have from home, as well as learn their relatives and new species that are relevant to a tropical context. More broadly, I came down here to learn about edible plants, soil management, and how to grow food more sustainably. I’m increasingly worried by the threats of climate change looming ever larger and closer on the horizon. The production and distribution of food contribute a huge part of global greenhouse gas emissions. If we can figure out how to feed ourselves better, we’ve started to solve a big part of the problem. I’m hoping to learn from an alternative model here and to have some time to reflect on what part of that narrative I can contribute to.
For more info, check out the Maya Mountain Research Farm website: http://www.mmrfbz.org
They also post photos & updates on their Facebook page – I’m featured in some of the recent ones :): https://www.facebook.com/MayaMountainResearchFarm/
Sorry for sparse photos but the internet connection is extremely slow – hoping to share a photo album later on as this place is pretty visually stunning 🙂 Anyhow stay tuned as I’ve got some more to say on exploring Mayan ruins and the surrounding jungle, as well as updates on where I live (quaint little treehouse), where I bathe (refreshing river), and other inspirations and cool permaculture tidbits that I’m learning.