We are also forced to use insecticides. Through the food forest project, we are changing and encouraging the growth of more plants, which also feeds us as a community. And we can use the same plot of land each time. The whole community is part of this transition.”
Mike Hands is a tropical ecologist and the founder and director of the Inga Foundation in neighbouring Honduras. He has worked closely with local communities to combat deforestation by popularising an agroforestry system known as inga alley cropping.
It was a difficult experience watching entire forests go up in smoke during field studies in Africa during the 1980s as farmers used slash-and-burn techniques to plant crops.
Hands recalled seeing “vast areas of forest being replaced by nothing but grass”. Today, roughly 7% of the world’s population uses slash-and-burn. The fires release the carbon stored by the trees back into the atmosphere at alarming rates.
“In the humid tropics, there is barely any sustainable agriculture. This was the problem I was trying to address in the eighties. Why was this so?” Hands asked.
“You’ve got the most biologically successful ecosystem in the rainforest and yet people are turning to slash-and-burn. It doesn’t work. It maintains people in poverty.”
The agroforestry system Hands helps promote is based on the use of inga, which is grown as a companion plant alongside other crops such as cacao and coffee. Inga “ticks away in the background and can be something that farmers sell,” Hands explained.
Since inga is a nitrogen-fixing and fruiting tree, it provides nutrients for the soil, protects roots and acts as natural pest control. It also provides firewood, and this stops villagers from encroaching into the forests.
“For the first time, people were able to grow crops again,” Hands said. “This was a breakthrough.”
He added: “We told the farmers that we could give them everything they need, but they would have to wait two years before getting a successful harvest. But even knowing that, they still wanted the system.”
Pilot schemes have now demonstrated the resilience of inga alley cropping in the face of storms – including climatic El Niño events. The inga alleys have proved to be more resistant to changing weather patterns.
“El Niño ripped every peak of conventional cropping on those slopes and was followed by nine weeks of drought, from which most conventional harvests on slopes failed. The only crops that survived were in the inga alleys,” Hands said.
Seeing the success of the plots, many neighbouring families are turning to the technique.
“We are now witnessing a critical mass of families that are spreading on their own. We now have around 700 families implementing inga alleys,” Hands said.
With the help of funding from organisations such as Kew Gardens and the Eden Project, the foundation currently houses over 75,000 seedlings, including cacao, rambutan, mahogany and of course inga.
Forest gardens in general are thought to be an ancient practice that has historically sustained communities across the world.
In the Amazon, recent research by scientists shows that the remnants of these Indigenous agricultural techniques have left an imprint on the forest as it is today, including “the relative abundance and richness of domesticated species increase in forests on and around [pre-Columbian] archaeological sites”, according to an article in Science journal.
Another study in the eastern Amazon, published in the journal Nature Plants, documents that the adoption of polyculture agroforestry began about 4,500 years ago with the development of complex societies “combining the cultivation of multiple annual crops with the progressive enrichment of edible forest species and the exploitation of aquatic resources”.
With an agricultural system collapsing under climate breakdown, food shortages are an inevitable part of diversity loss. The work of the two projects shows that using agroforestry techniques to replace monocultures can provide a robust and resilient solution that helps nourish the soil and feed mouths.
Yasmin Dahnoun is an assistant editor for The Ecologist. This article first appeared in the Resurgence & Ecologist magazine. Find out more.