It is important to study small farmers in their traditional based agricultural systems because estimates show that by 2025, three (3) billion people will depend on agriculture production from this category of agriculture (Soleri et al. 2005). Soleri goes further to estimate that the world population will be 9 billion by 2050 and if his estimation is valid then the traditional based agricultural systems should be an important component on our research agendas, policies and plans among other things.
Sometime back, i conducted a research project among some indigenous groups in Belize, Central America. My research was on the awareness and perception of rural farmers to genetically modified crops and i focused on small farmers of different ethnic groups interviewing Mayan, Mennonite and Spanish small farmers. I would not divulge all the intimate details of the project in this blog. However I will give you some personal lessons learnt and challenges faced from the Mayan farmers.
In Belize, there are three groups of Mayan people, Kekchi Maya, Mopan Maya and Yucatec Maya whose major differences lie with the language spoken. Many of the older generation are farmers and they mainly plant beans and corn and other crops such as cocoa. These traditional farmers possess a strong connection to the farm, practicing milpa farming which contributes to the provision of food and resources to the people of Belize. Their farming lifestyle makes them strong and healthy. During one of my research field days, I was amazed to see an 80 year old woman running to catch a hen in her yard as though she was just 8. As in any other societal setting, some Mayans live in simple thatched roof housing made from the cohune palm while others especially in southern Belize have limited access to modern technology.
These farmers were able to shift my mindset once again to appreciate and value the earth and what it provides for us. I believe their deep respect and management practices can be spread all over the world and more specifically the technique of forest gardening which forms part of sustainable agriculture. In this techniques, the area under production is unplowed, tree-dominated and cultivated all year-round. It not only an advantage to the local ecosystem through cultivating crops year-round in a poly-cultivation (mixed cropping) permaculture system but also, It encourages biodiversity by nurturing plants and harvesting in a sustainable manner.
However Mayans in Belize and other Central American countries face land tenure problems. Indigenous people have learnt about the land and its biodiversity through interaction for thousands of years and as such, removal of people from the land breaks the study of the land and the knowledge is dependent on continuous use of the land. Thankfully a recent ruling by the Caribbean Court of Justice stated that indigenous land rights must be observed by the Government of Belize resulting to Mayans finally having sole rights to their land once again. But all said and passed, one can only hope for a revival of traditional based agriculture in Belize as we seek to move to more sustainable forms of agriculture.
To the unsung heroes of agricultural development in Belize we salute you.
Soleri, Daniela, David A Cleveland, Flavio Aragón C, Mario R Fuentes L, Humberto Ríos L, and Stuart H Sweeney. 2005. “Understanding the Potential Impact of Transgenic Crops in Traditional Agriculture : Maize Farmers’ Perspectives in Cuba, Guatemala and Mexico.” Environmental Biosafety Research 4: 141–166.