I wake in the middle of the night. Rain thunders down. It is the rainy season and it hadn’t rained in a while, so it has some catching up to do. I worry that it might prevent me from departing from Hopkins this morning. I fell asleep in the late afternoon yesterday, so I cannot return to sleep. I lay in bed, listening to the pounding rain. The rain stops shortly after sunrise, so I get up and take care of some business. I go to the mail, pick up some food, and pack my bag before boarding the bus for San Pedro Columbia, the jumping off point for the Maya Mountain Research Farm.
Master boatsman Jorge Coc
The bus drops me off at a small crossroads. I ask a woman where I can find Jorge Coc. She corrects my pronunciation (I assumed it was pronounced as the Spanish would, not as George) and points out a small house. There, I meet a young man who identifies himself as Jorge’s son, who runs off in search of his father. Jorge arrives about 10 minutes later and we set off for the river. We load my possessions into a small dugout canoe. Jorge clambers in after me and begins poling upriver. Fortunately, the river level is very low, especially for the rainy season, which makes the work easier for him. Despite this, I hear his panting as he struggles against the current. Aninghas dive down in our wake. Kingfishers swoop low across the aquamarine water surface. Thick trunked trees send down tree roots into the cool, tranquil waters and drink their fill. After two hours, we arrive at the farm, marked by a small sign on the riverbank. I step out of the dory, pay Jorge, and start up the trail.
Chris and his dog, Bambi, meet me halfway to the house. Chris is a middle-aged, grey haired man with a beard down to his waist. Bambi investigates me intensely, but instantly becomes my friend when I toss a stick for her to catch. Chris welcomes me and shows me up to the house, where his partner, Soleni, and several other guests have just eaten lunch.
Bambi and the stick of the day
Everyone is extremely friendly and I fit right into the little community of ecologically-minded farmers that Chris has created. The balcony of the main house also serves as a covering for the dining area. The kitchen lies nearby and features a wood fired stove surrounded by stonework that Chris himself constructed. My cabin is about 100 meters away. They feature foam covered beds draped in mosquito nets.
I talk to Chris and we get along splendidly. This entire place is his brainchild. He arrived some 30 years ago after taking a permaculture design class. The land was cheap then. It was previously citrus farm whose soil was completely depleted. Over time, using agroforestry techniques, he built up the verdant forest garden that he has today, where he cultivates breadnut, cacao, ginger, mango, avocado, coffee, coco yam, banana, coconut, papaya, pineapple, and a multitude of other wild edibles. It is unlike any other “agroforestry” system I have seen before and is an edible landscape that resembles unmanaged forest in its diversity, productivity, and structural complexity. What appears to be a chaotic cacophony devoid of order is actually a finely-tuned symphony. Each plant has its role to play in the function of the agroforest. It is also not dissimilar to the Lacandon system with its cycling of field and fallow. Chris intercrops Inga with his corn, beans, and squash, which helps fix nitrogen to improve corn productivity. Eventually the nitrogen fixation cannot keep up with demand and the crop yield diminishes after 3-5 years, at which point the Inga trees are already large enough to start closing the canopy. He is able to plant shade-loving plants, like coffee and cacao, in this microclimate to allow for the regeneration of soil fertility. Furthermore, because of the milpa management, very few herbaceous weeds are present to compete with desirable species in this secondary stage. Very little management is necessary in later stages and it is a self-sustaining system. He harvests from all stages and in great abundance to the point that he is able to sell timber and food at market. I don’t know how the species composition compares to Lacandon agroforests, but the parallels are uncanny. I ask him whether he drew any inspiration from the nearby indigenous Mopan and Qeqchi Maya. He did not. While the Mopan are excellent farmers and have a similar model of rotating field, fallow, and forest, the Qeqchi are more recent immigrants to the region and have yet to develop anything more complex or sustainable than conventional corn milpas or cattle ranches. It seems as though the Mopan are to the Lacandon as the Qeqchi are to the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Chol who were given lands in Lacandonia after the Ley de Reforma Agraria in Chiapas.
Not all agroforestry systems are created equal
Chris certainly has his little idiosyncrasies. He owns a semi-automatic rifle (one of the few in Belize), handgun, small caliber rifle for hunting, and a shotgun. The latter two are for hunting, the former two are for defense against Guatemalan raiders. He is somewhat close to the border and Guatemala has long been arguing that part or all of Belize is part of their national territory. The argument goes back all the way to the Treaty of Tortillas (1494), which divided up the Americas between Spain and Portugal. England, who did not control British Honduras then, as Belize was called at the time, was not a part of the agreement. Even so, it did not recognize the treaty. Local Maya repelled Spanish conquistadors from what is now Belize, allowing it to be “settled” by English seamen. The Godolphin Treaty of 1670 allowed England to hold onto any existing colonies in the Americas, but the colonies were not explicitly defined. The Spaniards tried to retake the territory they claimed was rightfully theirs in the late 1700s, but were repelled. The English and Scottish settlers did not obtain a formal treaty with Spain and England never really had full control over the colony, which started electing its own local government. They joined the British Empire in 1862 as British Honduras. This provided some leverage for locals against Guatemala, which had obtained independence from Spain in 1821, allowing for the passage of the Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty of 1859. The treaty stipulated that Guatemala would recognize Belize if Britain would build a road from Guatemala to Punta Gorda, Belize, which never happened. As a result, Guatemala claimed that the treaty was void in 1940, and once again claimed that Belize was theirs. Belize gained independence in 1981 and claimed that because they did not sign the 1859 treaty, they were not bound to it. This territorial dispute continues to this day. At any rate, Chris, a self-proclaimed “Belizean nationalist” views Guatemala with outright contempt, considering it a corrupt, crime-ridden state. I know too little about the territorial dispute to assess how real the threat really is.
I chop wood to fuel the wood stove after lunch. I find the activity very meditative: stack the wood, measure up your swing, the sharp crack of the wood split followed by the dull thud of the pieces falling to the ground. By the time I finish my tour and my dinner, it is almost time for dinner, which is delicious. Soleni is an excellent cook and prepares a brilliant curried coco yam dish. Coco yam is something like yucca, but not quite as bland. Chris and I talk about the government and land management system of the Qeqchi, known as the the alcalde system. The alcalde system has its roots in some post-Classic Maya civilizations, but the Spanish conquistadors applied it to the whole of their territory. It made indigenous communities easier to oversee. The alcalde is a sort of village chief, a comisiariado, who settles minor disputes and enforces the community rules set by the village council. The role of alcade was historically determined by a pasado, or council of past alcaldes, who made their decision based on experience. Recently, however, the alcalde has been elected by all the men in a village. With a young population, young people are able to dominate the election process to select young alcaldes who are economically advantaged over the “old men” who typically served as alcalde. This has led to a rise in factionalism and materialism in the communities. After dinner, the guests and I play cards into the early evening where we retire for bed.