Tropical forests are important for climate change etc. They mitigate global warming by absorbing CO2. They also allow rainfall to get down to underground aquifers thus providing for a constant supply of water throughout the year.
Over half of the world’s species of plants and animals live in tropical forests. Most of them have not even been discovered yet. They could contain the cure for AIDS, cancer etc… Globally we are losing approximately seven species per day. These are howler monkeys in Panama.
The people who live in and around these forests are often left out of efforts to preserve their forets.
Despite the importance of the forests, most farmers in the tropics still practice slash and burn farming. The picture on the left is a field in rural Nicaragua. The picture on the bottom right is a burnt field in Panama’s Chagres National Park. on the shore of Lake Alajuela. Lake Alajuela feeds the Panama canal. Farmers clear an area of forest, burn the vegetation they have chopped down and then plant their crops using the ash as a natural fertilizer. After the heavy rains of the rainy season wash the ash and topsoil away over the course of a year, the farmers move to a new area where they repeat the process. After a few years, they go back to the first area to slash and burn whatever has grown back. Each time the process is repeated, there is less soil left. Finally, nothing except grass will grow where there was once an abundance of majestic trees etc…. At that point cattle are often brought in. Weighing much more than any animals naturally found in this environment, they compact what is left of the frail soil causing further erosion and gullying.
SHI offers families alternatives to slash and burn farming that allow them to live better while preserving our environment.
An important part of how SHI works is to hire local field trainers who work with individual families on the farms where these families live, helping them learn new techniques and market their crops, as well as helping to reforest in areas that are environmentally sensitive. Here are two of our field trainers visiting farmers and discussing the crops being grown. It is this direct, hands-on and long-term commitment that makes SHI different.
SHI provides rural families in Honduras, Panama, Belize and Nicaragua with alternatives to slash and burn destruction. Trained, local extension agents work with the same families on a regular basis for three to five years, teaching them a variety of sustainable land-use techniques. First they focus on the family diet. They teach program participants simple techniques for growing on once piece of land year after year without having to clear more forest.
It’s important to realize that SHI families usually are very poor when we begin work with them, and have had little or no access to education about alternative growing methods. Other SHI techniques include: Planting of cover crops Rotation of crops for soil recovery, Production of natural ,non-chemical pesticides or other pest control methods. That is one of the greatest needs that SHI extensionists meet. SHI is often asked why farmers who have been practicing agriculture all their lives don’t know about these methods already, and the answer lies in the mixture of poverty, lack of education and resources, and institutional pressure from governments and corporations to use the more standard methods of agriculture, i.e. chemicals, pesticides, genetically modified seed.
Helping SHI families build rice paddies is both a way to improve nutrition and to potentially increase income
The organic gardens produce nutritious vegetables that improve families’ diets. Often the gardens are then expanded so the family can sell the extra produce and increase their income. Everyone, including this Honduran boy named Wilson, are thrilled with the results. His family’s annual income was around $600 until it dropped dramatically along with coffee prices. Last year, the second planting of their vegetable garden produced enough extra vegetables for them make $450 in vegetable sales.
SHI encourages all participants to include as many trees as possible in their land-use plans. Families like this Mayan family in Belize learn to grow their own seedlings for transplanting onto their farms.
SHI encourages biodiversity on all the participating farms. This plantation in Panama mimics a natural forest with an overstory of hardwood trees shading bananas, coffee and ginger – all of which thrive in the shade. Plantations like these have been found to contain 90% of the biodiversity of bird species as compared to nearby natural forest. This type of growing system is often called multi-story cropping.
The trees needed to shade crops like cacao can also be valuable crops themselves and even support other crops. The vanilla vine growing up this cedar tree (left) produces pods (right) of organic vanilla beans that fetch a high price on the international market. A biologically diverse farm makes sense economically, as well as environmentally. If one crop price is bad, it helps to have many other crops whose prices may be better on the same plantation. An integrated farm is like a diversified stock portfolio.
Many families have never been shown how to do local composting or how to use worms for improved soil. This and other soil conservation methods are crucial to improving yield both in family gardens and in more commercial crops.
The same family has continued to improve their soils with the use of cover crops like macuna beans and other techniques they learn with SHI. In the foreground they show off the improved soil, while in the background we see their shade coffee plantation.
Along the edge of the erosion barriers, mustard greens were planted. They provide a further barrier against erosion, are another product to sell And they attract friends. . . These insects on the mustard greens, eat the insects that eat onions. A simple way to control pests without dangerous chemical pesticides!
In the end the farmers sold the mustard greens and the onions for a good price increasing the income from this plot from $80 to $1,000 all while switching to sustainable practices. SHI’s Honduras program coordinator had this to say: “ If they had planted corn on that same land [using slash and burn techniques]with a minimum use of chemicals, they would have harvested a maximum of 2,500 lbs of corn in grain sold at $11/100lbs totaling $275 and they would have invested some $180 -- $200 in inputs, person days and transport for the sale, earning some $80, [as compared to the $1000 they earned from the onions] The difference is notable, isn't it! The most they invested in seed, fertilizer and assorted inputs was $200, in labor the crop took some 250 person days (average of 30 days per farmer) which was they themselves and equivalent to $750 ($3 per day is the average salary in the campo), including other costs, they invested some $1000 in this crop since they didn't spend anything on transport (They [buyers] went to the village to buy the product from them). Thus the the net earnings were $1000! in 4 months of work. That $250 of income per farmer represents almost 50% of the annual income they receive in that zone since normally a family has a net income of $600 annually from selling coffee, basic grains and other products including the sale of person-power working as a day laborer This activity was very excellent for them since they generated good income at a moment when the economy of the zone is completely destroyed and already there are people in the community that want to imitate them and that are asking for our collaboration. Our work as an institution through Juan Carlos was vital and they have publicly recognized it.”
With coffee prices in the toilet, SHI participants are getting help in areas such as crop diversification, organic certification & the formation of coops that allow them to avoid intermediaries. One of the new crops bringing a good price to some of SHI’s Honduran participants is Tabasco peppers. This man (Don Cheyo) made $4,000 from the sale of his first Tabasco pepper harvest! The average annual income for a family in the area is around $500!
SHI also helps participants add value to their crops. This Honduran woman is the president of the local women’s groups. SHI is helping them process some the the medicinal herbs they grow into herbal medicines that fetch a higher price in local and international markets. We also work in small business ventures with poultry, pacas and pigs, as well as crops that people don’t usually grow for themselves but have market value in the region (i.e. noni, peppers, etc.)
SHI works with families to save and store seed, emphasizing self-sustainability and lessening dependence upon purchase of seed, especially seed that is genetically modified or dependent upon chemicals and pesticides for germination.
When families start working with SHI, they often complain that they lose a couple of chickens and at least a dozen eggs to night-time predators every month. In addition to protecting the chickens and eggs, the coops concentrate the manure for easy collection.
To improve family nutrition and income, SHI helps build and stock small fish tanks.
As another means of conserving trees and improving the health of participating families, SHI assists with the construction of wood-conserving stoves that use less than ½ the firewood of the traditional open fires in the home. They also direct the smoke out a chimney so family members do not suffer the effects of being in a smoke-filled room most of the day. The amount of smoke a woman breathes from an open fire in her kitchen is the equivalent of 8 packs of cigarettes per day.
Manure from the chickens and other animals is used for compost or fed through a biogas digester that uses anaerobic decomposition to create methane gas. The effluent from the biogas digester is also a powerful liquid, organic fertilizer.
All of SHI’s field trainers work with school groups on educational programs about the environment and school gardens.
We had 14 volunteer trips this year for student groups, community groups and others who wanted a different sort of vacation. We hope you will join us on a trip next year.
Sustainable Harvest International
Planting Hope, Restoring Forests,
Sustainable Family Farms Reducing Poverty & Deforestation in Central America Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua & Panama