Upon arriving in Belize, I was immediately immersed into a diverse culture consisting of rich Caribbean lifestyle roots, Central American customs, and historic Mayan traditions. Instead of clashing, these diverse cultures have been blended together in what has become the traditional Belizean culture. For example, a traditional meal here consists of BBQ chicken, white rice, black beans, coleslaw, plantains, and corn tortillas. Talk about a diverse meal!
In the northern part of the country, the local economy functions mainly on tourism- everything from visiting the cayes, to diving into the gorgeously blue barrier reef, to exploring the ancient Mayan ruins; people from all over the world travel here to see the “Caribbean on the mainland.”
However, the picture unfolds very differently the more south you travel in Belize. My internship is in the southern region of Belize- the Toledo district. This region is very different than the northern part in which there is very little tourism. Rather this region is quite rural consisting mainly of small villages (mostly indigenous) and one small town in which I reside, Punta Gorda. The Toledo district is the poorest district in an already developing country. In fact, many local residents call this region “the forgotten district” of the country. Most residents are small-scale farmers growing crops mainly for personal consumption, while selling excess at the local market (usually their only source of any income). The one source of economic opportunity is growing organic cacao because of the high global demand for chocolate. Despite this, the rainforest is quite present in just about every direction you look in this region. I believe that this is what makes the Toledo district so beautiful- there is a lack of economic development, an abundance of surrounding natural resources, rich biodiversity, and a sense of “primitive” lifestyle still existing down here.
I believe that this is why this region has been perfect for my research. I came to Belize specifically because I wanted to see how agriculture is being done within a Central American country. Further, pursuing to gain a better understanding about sustainable agriculture, how small-scale farmers apply it here in Belize, and what other small-scale farmers around the world can learn from this particular case study. Thus, this region has offered me the best opportunity to pursue my intended research objectives.
My internship has been with Sustainable Harvest International (SHI-Belize), in which their motto is “Planting Hope, Restoring Forests, Nourishing Communities.” The type of work they do here primarily consists of working with and educating small-scale farmers in the surrounding villages to better implement sustainable practices into their agricultural production. I have learned a great deal from SHI-Belize and the types of methods that they train farmers to incorporate into their farms. Some of these practices include: applying organic crop growth (using no synthetic fertilizers), promoting agroforestry (mix of crops and forestland in dense areas), enhancing reforestation efforts (planting cedar trees and the native mahogany tree), practicing slash-and-mulch techniques rather than slash-and-burn, efficiently using cover crops to replete soil nutrients, diversifying crops, as well as training farmers to compost organic matter effectively. All of these methods, which are not limited to, have shown to positively affect both the farmers crops as well as his viewpoint about the importance of sustainable agriculture. Not to mention that this style of farming is helping conserve and preserve much of the Belizean rainforest.
During my first week with SHI-Belize I spent the week getting to know the staff, the organizations intentions, as well as the surrounding culture. I also conducted a few interviews with staff personnel and a professor who teaches agriculture and runs an organic gardening workshop at the community college. It was great to get their perspectives on current agricultural practices being done in different regions of Belize, the issues surrounding the Belizean economy and environment, as well as their viewpoint on what sustainable agriculture entails within this country specifically. I also discovered that SHI-Belize encourages farmers to grow organic cacao because it is a native plant here, it grows well with other crops (agroforestry), and because chocolate is in high demand in the global market which creates an economic benefit for these small-scale farmers to generate some sort of income.
I also was able to check out the local farmers market this week (which runs every other day). This market was a great example of local food sourcing, in which Mayan farmers from the villages come into town early that day to sell whatever crops they have harvested. These crops vary from: cassava, to white corn, peppers, pineapple, mangos, yams, etc. On market day, the town streets are filled with both vendors and consumers eager to purchase nutritious crops at extremely cheap costs (I bought 2 bananas, a pineapple, a bag of green peppers, and a couple tomatoes all for $3.50 USD). It was crazy to me how this perfect example of healthy farm-to-table foods could be so wallet-friendly.
The second week of my internship was quite unique in itself. I spent the week deep in the Mayan Mountains, near the Belize/Guatemala border, in the indigenous village of San Benito Poite. The village consisted solely of huts made out of cohune trees, free roaming animals, a dirt road (one way in and out), two churches, and around 300 villagers. There was no electricity, no cell phone service, no internet, not even running water (luckily there were two rivers flowing through the village). For the first time in my life I was living completely off the grid, in the most primitive state I could imagine. Here, I worked with a different farmer each day doing a variety of fieldwork.
One day consisted of trekking three miles deep into the thick bush only to uncover a farm on the other end. This farm, in which the farmer has been working with SHI-Belize for over three years now, was a great example of a highly sustainable farm. The corn crop region consisted roughly of two acres of organically grown corn stalks in neat rows, with cocoa yams and sweet potatoes being grown in between the stalks. Mucuna beans were being grown nearby to be used as a cover crop following the harvest of the corn stocks, in which the legumes’ sole purpose was to add nitrogen back into the soil, making it fertile once more. Overall, we explored roughly 15 acres of diverse crops being grown in a sustainable way that promoted agroforestry- in fact primary and secondary forestry was highly present in all directions. The farmer informed me that slash-and-mulch was more effective than burning because the cut vegetation breaks down over time which adds soil fertility, helps capture water from running off after rainfall, as well as to help prevent future weeds from developing in what would be exposed soil.
The next few days consisted of working on farms (average farm distance was two miles from the village) and in large gardens near the farmers homes (much larger and more diverse than most American gardens), identifying sustainable practices and helping them improve upon them. One of the days included transplanting coffee plants into the garden. The farmer was planting them in highly shaded areas underneath large cacao and mahogany trees. After asking him why, he responded that it is becoming dry season and thus they shouldn’t be over-exposed to the sun. Thus, a good example of agroforestry at it’s best. That same day we also planted cedar trees around his garden for future shading and promoting secondary forestry. Another day was spent transplanting cilantro and adding firewood ash to crop soil for added nutrients.
Overall, each farm and garden I visited was booming with a diversity of healthy organic crops, as well as rich biodiversity, primary and secondary forestry coverage, and dense soil fertility. On another note, each farmer owned numerous pigs, chickens, and sheep all free-roaming and consuming the natural vegetation (as well as dried coconuts and corn kernels). What this also exemplified was that the meat these people were consuming, and depended upon, was raised in a healthy and humane manner.
The third week consisted mainly of interviews with the several surrounding NGOs in the Toledo district. Each one having their own specific agenda but somehow all targeting sustainable agriculture as a key motivator. In fact, all of these NGOs were great to talk to because each had their own viewpoint on both the issues surrounding Belize, as well as why we need sustainable/organic farming more so now than ever before. One critical note that I thought was quite interesting was that every person I interviewed, including the indigenous farmers, all discussed how the weather patterns and climate have changed here in Belize over the last 15 years. All of them seemed to acknowledge that climate change was a major threat to both agriculture and their country.
Thus far in my research I have concluded that sustainable agriculture is very prevalent throughout the southern region of Belize, primarily because small-scale farming is still the most economically viable option for citizens here. This internship has been an eye opener for me in terms of food sourcing and how we, as Americans, virtually don’t know the true sourcing of our food (the farthest you can trace back is the grocery store). It has also provided me with an actual viewpoint and real life examples of agriculture being done in a sustainable way that is good for not only our health, but for the richness of the environment, and for economic development.