Novice permaculturists aren’t the first to visit the tropics and mistake a lack of garden beds for a lack of food production. Until the late 20th century, western anthropologists studying both ancient and current tropical cultures viewed equatorial agriculture as primitive and inefficient. Archeologists thought the methods were incapable of supporting many people, and so believed Central and South America before Columbus—outside of the major civilizations like the Aztec, Maya, and Inca—held only small, scattered villages. Modern anthropologists scouted tropical settlements for crop fields—the supposed hallmark of a sophisticated culture—and, noting them largely absent, pronounced the societies “hunter gatherer, with primitive agriculture.” How ironic that these scientists were making their disdainful judgements while shaded by brilliantly complex food forests crammed with several hundred carefully tended species of multifunctional plants, a system perfectly adapted to permanent settlement in the tropics. It just looks like jungle to the naive eye.
The managed forests of the Huastec Maya in northeastern Mexico are packed with up to 300 plant species, including 81 species for food, 33 for construction materials, 200 with medicinal value, and 65 with other uses (the numbers add up to more than 300 since these are multifunctional plants). In these forests, Maya farmers often create different subpatches that concentrate specific guilds of domestic species (such as coffee guilds) amid a background of natives. And all the while, they are tucking small gardens of bananas, chiles, manioc, and other edibles into any clearings. The managed-forest stage may last for 10 to 30 years. Then the cycle begins anew. Since the whole process is rotational, any given area will hold swiddens and fallows at all different phases. This complexity would understandably delude a cornfield-programmed anthropologist into thinking he was looking at raw jungle.
R Ranson wrote:Please let us know when your book comes out, and perhaps you could consider being a guest author here once it's published.
amarynth leroux wrote:Bear in mind after 30 to 50 years, there is only jungle with hardwood trees left, if the process is done correctly. Indigenous gardeners move on or they have 4 or 5 'milpa' fields in production, and rotate them over the course of years.
Corn, beans, and squash fill much of the milpa the first two years or more, but after the first harvest, the farmers dig in seedlings of bananas, papayas, guavas, and other fruit trees, and interplant them with manioc, tomatoes, chiles, herbs, spices, other favorite food and fiber plants, and some native forest seedlings. Nitrogen-fixing and firewood tree seedlings (such as Gliricidia, which is both) weave a border around the plot. The three sisters and other annuals cover the remaining ground for a few more seasons, but over the next five to eight years, the fruit-tree canopy closes in, and the farmers stop planting annuals. That activity shifts to a new plot, but meanwhile, back at the milpa . . . new cycles begin. By now most anthropologists have gone home and are missing the rest of the picture.
In some spots, farmers pull out a few non-flowering trees and bring in beehives. They also coppice trees known to stump-sprout (often leguminous) and begin growing firewood or craftwood. The tree fruits attract game animals, which supply meat, skins, and feathers. Cattle, tied to large trees, forage amid the greenery. Some of the other originally spared trees become trellises for vanilla beans and other vines, which yield for 10 to 12 years. Fruit rains down.
Tyler Ludens wrote:Do we have to limit ourselves to edible plants from a specific region? Or is any edible plant worldwide up for grabs?
Casie Becker wrote:Considering the tendency (an in think it's an increasing trend) for permaculturists to selectively breed to improve the ability of plants to survive, would you be interested in including subtropical species also? I don't want to backseat write, just think it might make a wider selection of familiar crops available.