“We are building a social movement to reverse rainforest deforestation by crowdsourcing an ‘Army of Davids’ from the 125 million farmers living in the rainforests of Central America.” – AltForest: Rainforest Microfarm Accelerator.
I was sitting amongst architects, designers, ecologists, journalists, with a pink drink in my hand, and a screen in front of me which said: Think like A Rainforest. The room had been buzzing with people squeezing past each other in the tight open space, politely saying, “excuse me”, to get to someone from the opposite corner of the space. After brief exchanges with a well-traveled teacher and a Brazilian physiotherapist, the presentation began.
Mike Hands, the ecologist and founder of AltForest and the Inga Foundation, introduced us to his years of research on the tropical rainforest, which eventually lead him to Costa Rica and Honduras for trials. An impassioned scholar, he relentlessly questioned previous research done on slash and burn farming, a destructive practice which leaves soil sterile and unusable for farming. His attention was drawn particularly to the application of phosphate in order to regenerate or stimulate soil and plant growth. It was his discovery of the use of rock phosphate that started his incredible journey till now. Disregarding warning and doubtful findings from his predecessors, he put his faith in the Inga tree, an indigenous species of the rainforest. With rock phosphate, he planted the Inga in alleys, creating space in between each alley for other crops to grow – cash crops or food crops. These crops benefit from being under the shade of the Inga, and the nutrients its fallen leaves give out as they decay. The fall leaves also form a layer of mulch which protects the other crops from extreme weather and nutrient leaching.
Long story short, Mike’s research and farming techniques have successfully transformed the lives of 40 families so far in South America. Not only are the farmers now able to grow their own food, have firewood for warmth and fuel, they can also start to live in sustainable symbiosis with the rainforest once again thriving around them.
The panel discussion which followed the presentation was quick and sharp, raising questions regarding scaleability, risks, investment models, and management structure. There were a few dubious figures provided by the team which suggest that they simply haven’t got enough data to generate a believable, let alone an accurate forecast of their future performance. They simply need more funding to expand and carry out more trials in other continents to develop the Inga-equivalent farming technique over there.
In the end, I was left with a lot more knowledge of the tropical rainforest, but many more questions as well. AltForest is an example of success bred from local knowledge paired with Mike’s passion and expertise. However, to sustain such an operation would require international support and government-implemented state infrastructure.
In the meantime, more of us need to be aware of the Rainforest Microfarm Accelerator, and even more need to start working with the planet, not against it. Appreciate what we have, and strive to protect it with all we’ve got.
(For anyone who is interested in similar ingenious solutions that tackle climate change, this book was recommended by a panelist, and I’m looking forward to reading it.)