Toledo District is the most marginalized district in Belize. Rural communities in Toledo face environmental damage and land degradation from increasing population densities and migration from Guatemala.
Agroforestry has a significant role to play in solving many of the problems that face Belize in the 21st century. Maya Mountain Research Farm is a small Non Governmental Organization working to repair damaged agricultural land using permaculture techniques. The farm was purchased in 1988 as a citrus and cattle farm, but in the intervening years it has been transformed into one of Belize's most developed model agroforestry systems.
Our mission is to research and demonstrate sustainable agricultural techniques and technologies appropriate to Belize that promote and ensure food security, economic security and environmental conservation and to transfer this information to farmers and extension workers in Toledo and other interested people.
Interns at MMRF work in all aspects of the farm, from the kitchen to animal management, to gardening and nursery work. When we host student groups or training, interns are expected to help facilitate that training. Expect to get dirty.
MMRF is in a beautiful location. With the Columbia Branch of the Rio Grande at its door step, and with the vast expanses of the Maya Mountains behind it, MMRF is located in a critical location for conservation. Wildlife is abundant here, with hundreds of species of birds, mammals like jaguar and peccary.
A high percentage of the food eaten at the facility is produced on site. Most of the work here is agrarian, involving planting and maintaining plants, harvesting and processing food. We make our own soaps, jams, vinegars and chutney. The researcher cabins, classroom, kitchen and dining area are all powered by photovoltaic or photovoltaic/wind systems.
Located near the Kekchi Maya village of San Pedro Columbia and the maya ruins of Lubantuun, close to the source of the Rio Grande, where the river bubbles out from the ground, there are plenty of options to get out and see things.
About the intern Program
MMRF has an intern program designed to train people in tropical agriculture and agroforestry. Interns are involved in all aspects of running the farm.
A good resource is our web page www.mmrfbz.org
, which has lots of information about what we are doing, and some photos of the farm.
Location: MMRF is a 70-acre parcel of land located in the southern foothills of the Maya Mountains, which, except for a narrow coastal plain, cover the south of Belize. We are situated within one mile of the Columbia River Forest Reserve, and within two miles of San Pedro Columbia Village. The Columbia River, which springs out of the ground ½ mile up river from MMRF, is also one border of the property. Access to the farm is by trail or river. From February through May, during dry season, the river is crystal clear. From May to December, during rainy season, the river is a bit higher and the water is brown. Big floods can come during rainy season, but they only last a day or two.
History: MMRF started out as a family farm, run by Christopher Nesbitt and Dawn Dean. In 1988, the farm was purchased and a transformation from a cattle and citrus farm into a productive, lush agroecosystem began. Since then much work has been sunk into rebuilding the soil and creating an agroforestry system comprised of fruit trees, timber, tree legumes, herbaceous perennials and medicinal crops, as well as building housing, developing water systems, and establishing gardens.
In 2004, MMRF was created on this land. Working with a board of directors, MMRF was first a not-for-profit business, and then, after review of our program by Government of Belize, a registered Non-governmental Organization. We provide a venue for training and research, and have conducted ethnobotanical research on behalf of University of Florida. We have provided training for Peace Corps and Belize's Ministry of Agriculture, local schools and international Universities, as well as local NGOs and Community Based Organizations including Tumul'kin, Yax Che Trust, Belize Organic Producers Association, Plenty Belize, Sustainable Harvest International, Friends of the Valley, Belize Botanic Gardens, Toledo Development Corporation, and various village councils. We have also hosted groups from the US such as Sierra Institute, UC Santa Barbara and Truman State University.
Permaculture at MMRF
MMRF is a very well established farm utilizing permaculture principles. We have hosted permaculture courses here that had both international and local participation and been tought by renowned permaculture teachers Toby Hemenway, Penny Livingston and Larry Santoyo. Our annual Permaculture Design Course is a wonderful way to learn permaculture, but living here for extended time is a very good way to experience crafted living systems.
The farm has been designed to mimic natural processes, and, in microcosm, our agroforestry system resembles the primary rainforest in structure, if not in species composition. We raise chickens, turkeys and ducks, guinea pigs and we also raise insects for poultry food, and the farm is set up to facilitate internal nutrient cycling.
Food and Kitchen Work
At the farm there is a major emphasis on sourcing of food from the local bioregion. As much as possible fresh, organic, vegetarian wholefoods are gathered as close to the property as possible. Ingredients which aren’t present within the bounds of the farm, are collected from the watershed, the Toledo district, greater Belize or internationally, in order of decreasing preference. Advantages of this approach include reducing and in most cases negating the impact of fossil fuel usage in food production and transport whilst supporting the local economy and increasing food security. On a more personal level eating this way increases understanding of food from plant to plate. It can be challenging to learn to live within the limits, both seasonal and regional of such a diet. Flows of food need to be utilized through careful planning of meals and storing any excess yield through preservation. This reality can be one of the most confronting realizations for individuals unfamiliar with living in a reduced energy environment.
All of the cooking is done in a communal kitchen on a wood fire stove and all meals are shared with everyone who is there to eat. Interns are expected to participate in the kitchen work by being responsible for preparing meals and cleaning the kitchen on certain days of their stay. They are also welcome to take part in the post harvest food processing. There is no better way to get in touch with the food produced on the farm.
Accommodations are simple but comfortable. In order to create privacy as well as a sense of community, the three dorms are a few minutes walk apart, they each contain a few rooms and a common space. They all have solar powered light. There is no television or radio, but plenty of hammocks, tables and games, and interns are more then welcome to bring along their musical instruments. On Saturday night we have “movie night”, when all the volunteers and interns have the option of gathering together to watch a DVD on the light glow of a laptop.
If possible, interns are provided a private room, except while courses are happening, with complete bedding, a mosquito net and a towel. Some times we have to double interns together in the same room. All rooms have two beds. Bathing is primarily done in the river, although there is an outdoor shower for the rainy season and for light use in the dry season. There is one central double vault composting toilet and laundry is done by hand at the river or at the laundry sinks.
Working and Learning
Work at MMRF greatly varies with the seasons, but there is certainly plenty of it all year long and of different interests. Interns can expect to participate in the day-to-day running of the farm, to help facilitate the courses when happening and to be in charge of a largely self-directed project if they are staying for more then a month. The day-to-day running of the farm includes activities such as gardening work (weeding, mulching, watering), food processing (harvesting, drying of beans, fermeting cacao, preparation of meals, pickles, jam, chutney, wine and vinegar), maintenance and development of the agroforestry system (mulching, pruning, tree planting), management of the poultry, maintenance of the trails and infrastructure (digging of trenches, building of stone steps or paths, cleaning of buildings, sewing, construction of furniture), data collecting, seed collecting, identification and labeling of plants. Work can be hard, but very enjoyable and definitely a great way to gain knowledge.
An other learning resource is the library, where interns can look to find information on tropical plants, natural building, food processing, wildlife of Belize, and all kinds of interesting stuff. A wireless Internet connection powered by solar panels and a wind generator allows interns who bring along a laptop to access the web when the sun is out and the batteries are well charged.
Here are some projects that we started, are planning on starting or would like to see happening under somebody’s lead: maintain and complex the agroforestry system, establish a goat dairy, create a small aquaculture system for native cyclids, start beekeeping again, build a tree house, develop educational/interpretive trails, improve the species list, create documentation about wildlife in the area, further develop food processing. We are also open to other project ideas that would be suitable for the location and in keeping with MMRF’s vision.