Slash and Burn Gets a Bad Rep

In my Inga Alley Cropping post, I painted “slash and burn” farming as a short-sighted practice which destroys the fertility of rainforests in order to reap a few seasons of annual crops. I should clarify that a bit….

Not all slash-and-burn farming is short-sighted and destructive. Actually, for thousands of years many Maya cultures have managed extremely sustainable agricultural systems based on slash and burn practices. Skilled Maya farmers have known how to use fire as one stage in a careful and complex system of successional agroforestry managed over a cycle of 10 to 30 years.

Maya woman proudly holding a crop of her indigenous corn. Pachitilul, Guatemala.

Unfortunately the Green Revolution, combined with pressures of capitalism and population growth, the destruction of indigenous cultures and knowledge, and the diversion of family labor to off-farm wage work have pushed farmers away from these traditional practices and towards the more short-sighted and destructive slash and burn farming common in Central America today. While the initial stages of slashing and burning are practiced, the subsequent and critical stages of successional long-term management are being lost. 

All around the world, it’s the same story. The Green Revolution of the 1960s promised an abundance of food using miraculous new chemical fertilizer and pesticides. At first it sounded like a utopia. Encouraged by powerful agribusiness corporations, many farmers around the world converted to the new paradigm. Unfortunately, 50 years later, we are realizing that those chemicals aren’t as miraculous as we were promised. Instead, we are learning that those chemicals have been destroying our soil fertility and trapping us in a cycle of dependence.

We no longer believe in the chemicals that agribusiness tries to sell us. You can feel that in the growing resentment towards companies like Monsanto and the growing momentum of the organic and local food movements. We’re ready to give up the chemicals and return to the practices of previous generations who knew how to maintain soil fertility and productive agricultural systems. Unfortunately, this knowledge is quickly fading along with the generations who hold them. We are rapidly losing agricultural knowledge based on thousands of years of research and development with nature. All around the world we are racing to preserve and promote that knowledge. Here at the Institute of Mesoamerican Permaculture in Guatemala, the local staff and community are working hard to use permaculture as a tool to preserve their cultural heritage, soil fertility and ancestral seeds. I’m hoping to learn as much as I can about their traditional milpa systems, as well as their model to preserve their indigenous culture in modern times, so that I can do the same and protect our cultural and agricultural practices back home in Hawaii Nei. 

If you’re interested in learning more about sustainable traditional Maya milpa farming and how it differs from destructive slash and burn practices, check out this paper:

Nigh, R. and Diemont, S. A. (2013), The Maya milpa: fire and the legacy of living soil. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 11: e45–e54. doi:10.1890/120344

Faith & Denial

“You live in California, you’re moving to a developing country to learn about sustainable farming, and you do yoga. Let me guess you’re a liberal. And let me guess, you believe in Climate Change” snipped Ron, a 61-year-old godfearing retired Naval officer from Iowa, who sat next to me on a five hour bus ride my first day in Belize. Meanwhile as he said the words “Climate Change” like the punchline of a joke, my Californian-tree-hugging-yogi-liberal-self thought, “I’ve found one in real life! A climate denier!”, as if I’d encountered a unicorn. Needless to say Ron and I had an interesting discussion, trading climate data for bible verses as around us Kriol women chatted in their melodic carribean accent over the soft 60’s reggae playing out the crackly stereo system of our bus ricketing down the Hummingbird Highway.

Yes, I believe in climate change. Although ‘believe’ isn’t the verb I’d choose to use as I think we’re well past the point where we have the time to debate the validity of climate science, let alone the semantics of climate deniers. “Denial is a luxury for fools and the soon-to-be-extinct”, to take a line from Albert Bates’ book “The Biochar Solution” which I just devoured and will likely try to convince you all (more than once) to read. 

Climate change is real. It’s the single biggest definite threat society faces today. (Sure, nuclear war is terrifying, but it’s only a possibility if our crazy political leaders turn out to be just as crazy as we all fear. Climate change is already here, crazy leaders or not). I’m anxious about climate change. It terrifies me. But as much as it terrifies me, it also motivates me. What can I do to slow the effects? To try to undo some of the damage? 

It’s refreshing to be on the farm with people who care about and understand these issues. Like me, they’re skeptical about humanity’s chances, but optimistic enough to give it a shot. While we grumble about the devastation of the recent hurricane season over our morning coffee, we put on our gloves to go plant trees.

So what can we do? It’s actually pretty simple. If carbon in our atmosphere is causing the planet to warm, we need to stop putting more out there and take some of it out. Take carbon out of the air. Put it in the ground. Like crazed hippie Robin Hoods taking excess from the rich and passing it to the poor, we need to grab carbon from the atmosphere and put it back into the soil where it belongs. I’ve been learning ways to do that with soil management. Healthy soil, full of microbial life and nutrients, holds carbon. Composting, mulching, and plants help the soil hold even more carbon. Biochar (something I’m really excited about these days) can help soil hold even MORE carbon (and nutrients and water too!). Biochar is a charcoal-like substance used as a soil amendment, modeled off of ancient practices used to maintain soil fertility in the Amazon for thousands of years (called terra preta). Hopefully I’ll be making some in the next few days and can update you with some pictures and a brief explanation afterwards. It’s really exciting stuff. 

Anyways, next week I’ll board a series of buses across the border to Guatemala where I’ll spend the rest of the year at the Instituto Mesoamericano de Permacultura on the beautiful Lake Atitlan. Who knows who I’ll sit next to on the next bus ride, but I’ll happily trade climate data again. Let’s just hope next time I’m trading for Mayan legends or even illuminati conspiracies instead of bible verses. Anything but bible verses….

Inga Alley Cropping 

Many Central American farmers still practice damaging slash-and-burn farming: slashing through rainforest and burning down patches in order to expose fertile soils to grow crops on. When the forest floor becomes exposed in this way, the nutrients are quickly stripped and fertility diminishes within a few years. Farmers have to keep moving and burning new areas of forest, damaging vast areas of land in the process. The ecosystem and habitat functions of rainforest are lost, carbon is emitted into the atmosphere through the burning (climate change!!), and increasing amounts of land lose precious fertility.

Inga Alley Cropping is a sustainable alternative, practiced here at Maya Mountain Research Farm. It’s a type of tree intercropping, which means that annual crops (corn, beans, things you’d find in a vegetable garden) are farmed amongst trees. Planting trees together with crops provides a variety of benefits that help maintain fertility and store atmospheric carbon in the soil. This practice has huge potential to combat climate change if implemented on a global scale – Tree Intercropping ranks #17 on Project Drawdown’s list of top 100 solutions to climate change (more info on this list in the ‘Book Club’ tab).

Delicate webbed leaves of an Inga Tree

Inga Alley Cropping has two components: 1) rows of Inga trees and 2) alleys between the trees for planting crops. The cycle begins with matured Inga trees shading out the alleys, preventing photosynthesis and killing off any weeds. Then, we cut back the Inga trees: larger branches can be hauled off and used for firewood, while smaller twigs and leaves are left in the alleys as mulch. The mulch helps build soil and add nutrients, like the leaf litter of a forest floor. With the trees cut back, the alleys are opened up to sunlight for photosynthesis, and we can plant seeds in the mulched alleys. This week Alfonso and I planted peanuts, okra and cucumber, but any other crop of choice would work.

Inga Trees planted in rows with newly seeded alleys between them

In a few months we’ll harvest our peanuts and maybe even plant a second crop while the Inga trees grow back again. Eventually the trees will shade out the alleys (and the weeds!) once more and we’ll restart the cycle by cutting back the trees, mulching the cuttings, and planting crop seeds. 

The same area can be used to plant the next crop because the trees helped maintain soil fertility. First, the process of mulching the tree cuttings builds soil and returns nutrients to the ground. In addition, the trees have deep roots that pull up nutrients to the surface. On top of that, Inga Trees are Nitrogen Fixers – which means they build Nitrogen in soil (important for plant growth!) through a special symbiotic relationship with bacteria around their roots. All that to say, the Inga Trees maintain soil fertility so that a farmer can continue to farm the same patch of land over and over, rather than having to slash and burn a new section of rainforest every few years. This can help protect virgin rainforest, especially as populations continue to rise.

Nodules in the Inga Tree roots harbor Nitrogen Fixing bacteria

MMRF holds workshops with local outreach groups like the Ya’axe Conservation Trust to help disseminate this technique to local subsistence farmers. From what I’ve heard, it’s been well received so far. Hopefully it gathers even more momentum moving forward!

The method was developed by Mike Hands in Costa Rica. For more info, check out:

You can also read more about tree intercropping as a solution to climate change from Project Drawdown:

Maya Mountain Research Farm

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. 

Didn’t end up needing Jorge as I serendipitously sat next to my neighbors on the bus!

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. 

Rollinia Deliciosa – it really is oh so deliciosa

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:

They also post photos & updates on their Facebook page – I’m featured in some of the recent ones :):

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.

Chikai, Chicken Murder & Chickie Chick 

Goood afternoon from Maya Mountain Research Farm, Belize. I’ll write an overview of what this place is & what I’m doing here eventually, but for now here are some updates from today.

This morning  I followed Erena around the farm harvesting some ginger flowers and Chikai. Chikai [Calathea allouia] is a local vegetable that looks like the red shampoo ginger we have at home in Hawaii, but green/yellow in color instead. We’ve had it for lunch several times and they’re fiborous and pretty bland. I don’t really enjoy them boiled, but the smaller ones are okay when cooked with black beans, or in the ginger chicken soup we had for lunch. 

Harvesting Chikai

Chikai, rice, beans & green veg

Speaking of chicken….. Yesterday, we got a box of cute little chicks that will grow up to be laying hens. They are ADORABLE. But that also means that we got to kill one of roosters today. (Got to kill? Questionable but yes. Meat is a rare delicacy here on the farm. Chris is a vegetarian but occasionally goes hunting for his wife Celini when she’s craving meat. Like this weekend. Chris failed to come home with a agouti from yesterday’s hunt so we’re excited about the chicken today).  I’ve eaten chicken all my life but never been a part of the killing process, so I asked Erena if I could watch her work. I quietly observed her catch him, cut his neck & hang him upside down to drain the blood. After a while, she dipped him in hot water for a minute and plucked the feathers. I was nervous I was going to feel queasy, but I surprisingly felt very little. Maybe I’m cold hearted, or maybe it was the skillful and very matter of fact way that Erena went about it. I’m sure it would be a different story if I tried it myself (I’m debating whether I should ask next time). Just when she was about to slice open the chicken to remove the guts, Chris called me for a farm walk about. Saved by the bell I guess.

In other chicken news, Chicky Chick has hurt her foot. Chicky Chick is a few month old chick that is effectively an MMRF pet. Apparently she somehow hatched amongst a batch of duck eggs, so Chris & Celini scooped her up and have been caring for her since. She’s imprinted on humans & clucks around the main area sitting on furniture, swinging in the hammock, etc. Everyone shows her love & endearingly calls her Chicky Chick, so I knew she was spoiled. I just didn’t realize how much until she hurt her foot this morning & Erena & Celini delicately massaged Tiger Balm onto her back leg. World’s most pampered chicken I swear.

From cute little chicks to a spoiled chicky teen and even a rooster supper, it’s the whole circle of chicken life here on the farm. 

Chicky chick’s Tiger Balm massage