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In praise of Honduras' forest gardens

United States

Honduran forest gardens show life beyond corn fields. Photo: fishhawk, reproduced under a CC license.

The drought-parched harvests around the world this year, along with the season’s hottest archeological finding, offer a cautionary tale.

Benjamin Cook, who sifts through mountains of computerized data rather than dusting off shards of pottery like old-fashioned archeologists, has developed a climate model that explains one of the great mysteries of Western hemisphere history – the sudden collapse of the advanced and mighty Mayan Empire roughly 1,300 years ago.

It turns out that drought – human-caused drought – was the culprit that made the Mayans’ Central American homeland uninhabitable. The Mayans chopped down forests both to clear land for farming maize (corn) and to burn timber to convert limestone into building blocks for Mayan temples, much like the energy-intensive process used to make today’s cement.

Once the region lost its dark forest canopy that previously absorbed the sun’s rays, the heat bounced back into the atmosphere, thereby evaporating clouds that once dropped the rain needed to feed the first empire, being as it was entirely dependent on a food supply centred on corn. History seems to be repeating itself for the second of the Western hemisphere’s great empires, which is not only entirely dependent on a corn-centred food supply but also on an energy system bent on deforestation.

Forest food

I am just back from a visit to Honduras, which confirmed that there is life after plantation-style fields of corn. It just takes a complete rethink of the standard ‘Western’ notion that forests are about wilderness that has to be cleared before fields can produce agriculture and support civilization.

Today’s urban forestry ethic promotes city trees as a way to bring nature back to the city and to provide pleasing and calming environments that improve air quality and boost mental health. But a new generation of city tree enthusiasts sees orchards and forests as ways to grow food, not just as an escape from the Civilization Blues.

What I saw among the Indigenous peoples in Yorito and its surrounding mountain ranges certainly confirms the view that forest gardens have what it takes to provide food, as well as other benefits.

Of course, Honduras has some obvious advantages when it comes to food production. Aside from a tropical climate, it’s classed as a ‘centre of origin’ for many of the world’s major food crops, including corn. It enjoys plenty of genetic diversity of its own, as well as imports from other tropical colonies controlled by the Spanish conquerors of Central America.

The village of Yorito is about a three-hour drive north on paved road from the capital city, Tegucigalpa. The mountain villages we visited from there every day are a further two-hour lurching jeep drive over rib-crunching dirt and gravel roads.

During our stay we ate our morning and evening meals in the living room of Nelba Velasquez, one of Yorito’s leading micro-entrepreneurs, who also started a water-purification plant staffed by young single moms, as well as a landscape shop and forest garden in her own quarter-acre yard. Much of the food in the restaurant comes from the garden. Like many people in town, she grows beans and squash on raised beds and hosts a number of chickens, who live up to the free in free range.

The supermarket garden

The first thing I notice is that the temperature in Nelba’s forest garden drops about five degrees, partly thanks to shade and partly due to the evaporation of cool water from broad-leafed trees. She says she sometimes comes here for a cool afternoon snooze in a hammock tied between two trees – the latest must-have in forest gardening.

Here, in one overgrown parcel of a quarter-acre lot, I see a beautiful and scrumptious answer to climate chaos and hunger – and to the chronic-disease pandemic created by micronutrient deficiencies among rich and poor alike. Nelba first bought the abandoned livestock pasture she turned into a home 26 years ago and has been tending this garden ever since.

If this were a supermarket, no-one would complain about lack of choice in the produce or medicine aisles.

Here is my count of what fits in her backyard: four avocado trees, two each of two different kinds of guava tree, a papaya tree, a mandarin orange tree, a lemon tree, a tree bearing yellow Nanci berries for juice, a plum tree, 60 coffee plants, a tamarind tree, with sweet grass (for Thai soup and tea), balladania (a herbal that soothes anxiety), allspice and passion fruit hanging out of the fence lining her neighbour’s property. Did I almost forget the 10 varieties of banana?

The entire garden is organic and requires no ploughing, which keeps all the carbon stored by trees and in the soil intact – a powerful measure to mitigate global warming. It also contains a hammock, a clothes line, a baking oven for bread, a catchment basin for rainwater, two heaps of Japanese-style super-powered compost called Bokachi, a woodpile, a raised bed for vegetables, and a showroom for landscape plants.

Nelba puts the diversity down to a personality quirk. ‘I always want to diversify everything. My hands are in everything.’

Aside from running the water-purification plant next door for a day a week, Nelba is also on the local public health board and is treasurer of her local cial, which promotes seed diversity as a tool of empowerment for low-income communities. Forest gardens are sprouting among the hilltops dominated by beans and corn, wherever cial chapters flourish.

I believe these kinds of forest gardens are becoming the next new thing in North America’s local food movement. Earlier this summer, Seattle claimed to have North America’s first, only to be jumped on by a score of cities and towns claiming they were first. The nice thing is that edible forest gardens don’t have to compete with trees grown for beauty, shade and animal habitat. Forests are all-inclusive presences.

We don’t need a prophet to lead us out of the wilderness, my solar engineer friend Greg Allen likes to say. We need a prophet to lead us back. Food production can be part of that restoration.

Wayne Roberts is on the board of Unitarian Service Committee of Canada-Seeds of Survival, which funds cials in Honduras, and he toured Honduras as part of its delegation. He is also the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

The forest garden photo shows a producer in Zapote, Honduras. Photo by treesftf, reproduced under a CC license.  

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