Week 6 (My Final Days in Belize)

This last week was spent in the Cayo district; home to Mennonites, Mestizos, Guatemalans, and Creoles. This region is known as the agricultural region of Belize, in which large-scale and mechanized farming is quite prevalent here. I was fortunate enough to work with the Belizean Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) here, who were beyond pleased to host a student researching just what sustainable agriculture entails. In fact, I was quite surprised to learn about all the different projects that the MOA was currently working on to incorporate more sustainable practices into farming here in Belize, or as they call it ‘agroecology’.

They had multiple research gardens and farms- some being grown strictly organic, others using “green label” fertilizers, greenhouse growing projects, as well as an urban garden (ex. using old tires, plastic bottles, recycled material as gardening beds). All of their different projects, in some way or another, exemplified sustainable methods to growing food. It was great to see that the government here in Belize is striving towards improving farming production both on a large and small-scale level.

One of the days working with them was spent in a Mennonite (Amish) community, known as Spanish Lookout. This community was like no other place in Belize, in which there was a lot of deforested land for pasteurization, as well as large mechanized farming equipment present in all directions. This place looked like a rural Idaho farming town (my home base). The Mennonites in this community are known more as ‘progressive’ Amish because they drive cars, use large farming equipment (fossil-fuel dependency), and dress casually. Whereas ‘traditional’ Amish use oxen and horses to pull their wagons and tractors (non fossil-fuel dependency), as well dress and look like what you’d expect an Amish to look like.

Although the traditional Amish are more sustainable because they don’t use large fossil-fuel machinery, both types of Amish do use a lot of chemical fertilizers and deforest a lot of land for monocropping. To me, seeing these Amish farms were nothing new and reminded me of potato farming back home. Speaking with multiple Amish farmers they didn’t see what was wrong with using fertilizers- in fact one said he really didn’t care about the quality of the product rather than the quantity because that’s where the money is. The Amish here have a lot of money due to their mass production and control of many of the exported crops out of Belize. They also work with a lot of other local farmers- teaching them to use fertilizers, tilling their farms for them, etc. Due to their commercial style of farming I believe that they are negatively affecting even small-scale farmers here in Belize by promoting unsustainable techniques. I can easily say that their practices could be one of the root causes of environmental degradation and a growing threat for agriculture here in Belize.

On a different note, my time here in Belize was spent quite productively. Being immersed into the Belizean culture was a life-changing experience for me. I learned a great deal about what sustainable agriculture entails, I gained lifelong friends, I lived with indigenous people, I explored deep regions of the Central American rainforest, I swam with sharks in the worlds second largest barrier reef, I explored many ancient Mayan ruins, etc. I am walking away from Belize with a better understanding about not just sustainable agriculture, but what sustainability in general actually entails. This was a research experience that I wouldn’t have done any other way. But most importantly, beyond my intended research, I learned a great deal about myself. I have traveled quite a bit in my life thus far (not as much as some of my other close friends) but this was my first time ever traveling alone. Doing something completely out of my norm. I feel I have become a better person because of this internship with ProWorld. I can honestly say that I am more at peace with myself than ever before because of this internship experience.

Week 5

I have spent most of my time here in Belize exploring the southern region of the country, in the heart of the rainforest. However, this week offered me the chance to do more sight seeing of the country’s landscape. From exploring the Mayan ruins to snorkeling in the world’s largest living barrier reef, this week was filled with experiences that I will never forget.

To start the week off, I spent the first few days in San Ignacio (where I will be the entire final week of my research here). I came here specifically this week to check out some of the ancient Mayan ruins. Cahal Pech was first on my list, located within the heart of the town. It offered a unique layout covering more landscape than any other ruin I have encountered. The architectural design was quite fascinating, in which I couldn’t quite fathom how they were able to build such unique structures with so much detail in the stone.

The second ruin I visited was closer to the Guatemala border, known as Xunantunich. This ruin was quite different from Cahal Pech, in which it had much larger structures. This ruin, to me, symbolized a more powerful Mayan village over others back in the day. Climbing to the top of the ruin offered a gorgeous overview of the surrounding rainforest, San Ignacio, and the rest of the surrounding ruins. This ruin offered a truly peaceful view from atop (I can see why the ancient Mayans decided to structure it in that location). I also spent a day exploring the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Caves, which were home to ancient Mayan sacrifices. They were also very fascinating to see all the artifacts left behind deep in the darkness of the caves.

I recently just read Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, in which he discusses the mysteries surrounding the fall of the Mayan empire and how a lot of that had to do with their unsustainable farming methods. After decades of farming unsustainably, the ancient Mayans eroded the soils and led to minimized crop yield and starvation, thus led to the collapse of the powerful Mayans. I thought this was quite interesting seeing as how now I am back where this society collapsed, looking at their current agricultural methods and whether they are being done sustainably or not.

I finished the week with a more relaxing setting spending it on the island of Ambergris Caye in the town of San Pedro. Here I was able to go snorkeling in the world’s largest LIVING barrier reef (I highlight living because I know the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia is the largest reef but this one is home to the largest living reef). I saw a wide array of marine life, which included huge stingrays, and plenty of nurse sharks. I also explored the island of Caye Caulker for a day (which is a total of one mile long by quarter mile wide).

Overall both of these islands offered more of a Caribbean laidback environment and a lot of tourism. Everyone drove around golf carts rather than cars, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I also noticed that despite seeing a few grocery stores, there was plenty of fresh, local produce stands similar to the ones I saw in Punta Gorda. When I asked a few of the individuals working the stands where the crops came from, they all said from small-scale farms down in Punta Gorda. Thus, even out here on the islands individuals are still aware and able to purchase local crops that are being grown in a sustainable manner.

Week 4 (Belize)

This is my final week in the Toledo district before heading up north to see a few other regions of Belize. Once again this week was filled with various research experiences, in which I further gained an understanding of just what sustainable agriculture entails.

I began the week by spending a few days in the village of San Pedro Columbia, at an organic cacao farm. The farmer, Eladio, is a 65 year old Kekchi Mayan who has devoted his entire life to growing food in an organic and sustainable manner. Not to mention that he and his three sons started Maya Mountain Cacao Co. five years ago, selling organic cacao grown on his farm as well as from 30 other organic cacao growers to buyers in the U.S. and the E.U. It was obvious that they have a lot more money than just about any other person I’ve encountered in this region, so I would definitely say that business is booming for them.

I got a chance to learn how cacao is transformed from a yellowish-red fruit growing on a tree is made into a chocolate bar and beyond. In fact, I believe that this is the first time I have ever tasted 100% cacao chocolate (being grown organically). The process was quite unique in itself and I can see why there is a high global demand for this product.

With his sons doing most of the business work, Eladio himself is more into farming sustainably, focusing on his other crops as well. He took me on a tour of his 30 acre farm discovering various fruit trees such as citrus, custard apples, cacao, pineapple, coconut, banana, plantain, etc. as well as various other crops that would be too long to list. His farm could easily be labeled as a perfect farm promoting agroforestry (not a trace of deforestation in site). In fact, if I didn’t know we were in his farm, I could easily just mistake it for a stroll through the dense rainforest.

I spent another day working with another organic farmer by the name of Mr. Burton Caliz. This farmer not only gave me a detailed tour of his garden, farm, and the type of practices he uses but he also put me to serious labor that day slash-and-mulching his crops and harvesting various lettuces. I was beyond exhausted by days end. It was great getting a chance to talk with him to about why he practices this way. He had a great understanding about the lifecycle of farming and how if we disrupt one part then it will affect the other (ex. using pesticides kills insects, which affects pollination, which affects crop growth). His philosophy entailed something called “agreeculture” in which we need to agree with nature rather than come up with industrial methods around it.

I also spent a day at Belcampo, a resort in which they have their own sustainable farm to grow their food for the resorts restaurant. I was very surprised at how well managed and organized this farm was. They used zero fertilizers, only composted material from vegetation and chicken manure. Their grazing patterns with their chickens and pigs were similar to that of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in the U.S. (arguably the most sustainable farmer in the country).

Finally, my time here in Toledo concluded with an interview with Fysses, a huge industrial banana-growing corporation. This interview was like no other one I’ve had thus far, in which their viewpoint on agriculture was solely economical rather than environmental. They declined to answer just about any question related to fertilizer-use or deforestation, but definitely knew that they would finish the year with about $58 million in exported sales to the U.K. alone. To them, it was all about quantity over quality. It was great to get this perspective too though in order to see how differently large-scale farmers view agriculture, versus small-scale organic farmers.

Overall, I can say that my month down in the Toledo district was an unbelievable experience. I met a lot of dedicated farmers and individuals who understand the importance of sustainable agriculture. I learned a lot about what that term actually means and the type of practices that surround it. The citizens of Punta Gorda also seemed to have a good awareness about sustainability and the need to address climate change. I think partly because this region is still very rural, lack of technological development, and a dependency upon the surrounding natural resources that people here still have a good relationship with nature. Now it’s time to head north to see if small-scale farming is any different than down here.

Weeks 1-3 in Belize

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.

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WEEK 2

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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.

 

 

WEEK 3

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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.