There is a ‘wonderful tree’ in Honduras that is acting as a game changer: creating livelihoods of organic agriculture, resilience to the climate and hope for farmers in the Central American nation and elsewhere.
Because of this tree, the frequently used tropical land clearing method, which tragically tends to produce a good harvest, without there being another, is being replaced by another form of agroforestry that meets all the requirements and has the rural farmers rushing towards regenerative farming methods.
This form is called Inga alley cropping. It has been started by a British surveyor in Honduras named Dr. Mike Hands, and the method is based on a special kind of tree called Not. This member of the legume family contains more than 300 varietiesand its endemic characteristics gave Hands the basis for his revolutionary form of agroforestry.
It would go on to be described as the tropical equivalent of ‘turning water into wine’ by The Independent and The Guardian, who named Hands one of the 50 best humans Saving the planet.
“In the 80s, he worked in a dozen tropical countries and everywhere it was the same slash and burn story, where a family could grow a crop one year, and the next year the crop failed; and scientists could not explain why, “says Lorraine Potter, spokeswoman for the Without Foundation, a non-profit organization that seeks to transform the lives of rural Honduran families through Inga alley cultivation.
An estimated 250 million farmers worldwide practice slash and burn agriculture; Carbon released by burning trees and soil is estimated to contribute 73% of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in the developing world.
“He was trying to figure out why these systems were failing and why families had to keep burning three acres one year and another acre the next … and he made a breakthrough and found that it was the phosphorus that was depleted,” says Potter.
One of the 17 essential nutrients for plants, and whose functions cannot be performed by any other, plants cannot last long no suitable phosphorus, and it would turn out that the phosphorus in the soil was running out or disappearing without being adequately replenished.
Dr. Hands would go on to test a dozen different species before settling on Inga, despite being warned not to.
Potter explains that an Inga alley is like a bowling alley: where the gutters are is where the trees grow, and in the lane is where the crops grow. The hand configuration of placing trees just 8 inches apart, less than what most seed packets advise for cabbage plants, created the perfect conditions for food and commercial crops.
But why and how does it work? It begins with the sheer uniqueness of the Inga tree.
Inga can grow up to 25 feet in the first year of its life and tolerates poor soil conditions, heat, and drought and flooding. Its wide leaves partially shade the ground below, just enough to keep crops from overheating and weeds taking over, but not enough to block sunlight from reaching crops.
Being a member of the legume family, Inga is a nitrogen fixer. This means that it extracts nitrogen from the air and stores it in its roots, where a family of bacteria adds a hydrogen atom and converts it to ammonia, allowing plants to consume it. All plants need nitrogen. This is why fertilizers are made, and nitrogen fixers are a necessary part of any permaculture or regenerative farming model.
At approximately 16-18 months of age, the Inga trees in the alley are cut down to chest height, giving families all the firewood they need and covering the ground with the leaves, which decompose and revitalize the ground underneath.
“The first year they recruited 40 families. Families were concerned: how does planting trees feed them? ”Says Potter, explaining the childhood of the Inga Foundation, which recently won the Ray C. Anderson NextGen Award along with a $ 100,000 grant to practice Inga alley cultivation.
“So they planted half of their crop in the alleys of Inga and the other half did their normal slash-and-burn planting. There was a terrible storm of about six inches of rain. He washed all his crops slash and burn, [but they got] a harvest with its Inga alleys, ”Potter said. “So everyone immediately wanted to plant the rest of their land with Inga alleys.”
After that, I would say, there would be no need to recruit more families, and now there are 300 families in the surrounding valleys practicing Inga alley cultivation.
So far, Inga alley cropping methods have been adopted by farmers in Honduras, Peru, Belize, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Madagascar, DR Congo, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Laos, and Sarawak.
Green for green
After realizing that they could plant all their normal food crops in the Inga alleys, the farmers turned to cash crops. So far they have grown black peppercorns, cocoa, turmeric, chili peppers, cardamom, vanilla, citrus, and other products.
This generates legitimate income, allowing farmers to improve their lives. These products are awaiting ‘Organic’ certification, which they easily meet due to the regenerative nature of the model, both in terms of natural weed control that ends the need for pesticides and herbicides, and the use of organic fertilizers during the trimming season.
Interestingly, as the success of Inga’s alley cropping has grown, farmers have begun to go further. Some have started growing low-maintenance fruit trees, while others are reforesting areas of land that they used to tithe with fire.
Others are planting hardwoods to improve the forest environment and provide more income opportunities and food security. These include Cordia megalantha, which is used to make high quality furniture, but also produces sweet-tasting fruit and other luxurious hardwoods such as mahogany and dalbergia.
It may be primarily about generating food and income for farmers, but the world benefits from their efforts as Between 2012-2019, the Inga Foundation has calculated that more than 284,000 tons of CO2 have been sequestered or avoided through the use of Inga alleys. This number will reach 450,000 tons by the end of 2021.
It is truly amazing what a man can do, in the right place, by the right tree.
(LOOK the Inga Foundation video of their work below).
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