Bainbridge Island, WA— Honduras has one of the highest rates of poverty in Central and South America, with two-fifths of the population working in agriculture. Most subsistence farmers use slash-and-burn techniques to clear rainforests, but after a few years of using an area of land, the soil quality and crop yields decrease dramatically. Mike Hands conducted research starting in 1986 and used Inga trees instead of conventional species for alley cropping. This was the only method that successfully sustained crop production. Inga alley cropping allows farmers to increase crop yields and income, as well as prevent flooding and provide an alternative source of wood. The new method is an example of regenerative farming practices that reduce carbon emissions and improve the surrounding environment.
Poverty and Agriculture in Honduras
Around half of the population of Honduras lives below the poverty line. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing conditions, casting more families into poverty. Additionally, violence, crime and lack of security are commonplace. Before 2020, Honduras’ GDP grew 3-5% yearly and should rebound in 2021 after decreasing by 9% in 2020. Moreover, recent ongoing drought conditions have resulted in lower crop yields, causing food insecurity for many families who have few alternatives.
Much of the available farmland is swathed by rainforest and steep hills. After a few growing seasons, soil typically runs out of nutrients and forces families to find new space. Therefore, most farmers use the slash-and-burn method to clear land for growing. Initially, ash fertilizes the soil, but after two to three years, the soil degrades. Harsh weather and flooding also erode the topsoil, reducing crop yields and eventually forcing families to repeat the cycle. Agriculture is the only source of income for many families, and continuous years of poor economic conditions create social tension and push more people into poverty.
Alley cropping is an alternative agroforest technique where crops are grown between rows of trees or shrubs. It is most common in tropical regions that struggle with vulnerable growing conditions and allows for increased crop diversity. The trees provide protection for the smaller crops and improve soil conditions as pruned leaves and branches act as mulch. Over time, the system evolves as the trees grow and alter water and nutrients in the soil. Studies show that alley cropping increases crop yields and sustains farming productivity, especially in humid regions.
The layout of alley cropping varies depending on the tree or shrub species and the selected crop. Commonly used tree species are pine, oak, chestnut, walnut or apple. Each species provides different shade levels and has varying root systems that compete for water and space. The success of alley cropping requires extensive planning, as the characteristics of the tree species influence what crops will be successful.
What is So Great About the Inga Tree?
Inga is a genus of tree species that grow throughout South America. They are nitrogen-fixing, meaning they convert unusable nitrogen in the soil to a form that other plants can use. Mike Hands discovered that Inga alley cropping produces the best long-term effects and benefits.
- A diverse range of species native to different regions reduces the chance of pests and disease.
- Quick germination and growth allows the seeds and young trees to overcome weeds.
- Inga trees have a high tolerance to poor soil conditions common in the tropics of South America.
- Soil fertility improves through nitrogen and dropped leaves that act as mulch.
- They produce edible fruit that families can eat in times of food scarcity or sell for additional income.
- Pruning season provides families with firewood.
- Crop yields and reliable food sources increase.
- Soil fertility is sustained, and soil erosion and carbon emissions are reduced.
Inga Alley Cropping in Honduras
The Inga Foundation, directed by Mike Hands, has ongoing projects in Honduras in Pico Bonito National Park. Beginning in 2012, the ten-year project Land for Life supports more than 300 families in the journey of switching from slash-and-burn to Inga alley cropping. The Inga Foundation demonstrates to local governments its success using sustainable farming techniques and helps other regions in Honduras and Central America begin the process of Inga alley cropping.
Inga alley cropping produces higher crop yields from less land, which leaves families with land available for other crops. The Land for Life project also offers families the ability to plant fruit trees or cash crops in the remaining areas of the farm. Fruit trees like citrus, avocado or cacao add diversity to the area, and cash crops like pineapple, black pepper or plantain can be sold for income. Additionally, the project helps families reforest the land by giving them a source of timber and construction materials. Families are asked to save Inga tree seeds that can be given to other families, so they can begin the process of Inga alley cropping as well.
Spreading Inga Alley Cropping to Other Countries
Inga alley cropping provides many solutions to poverty and sustainability. It provides families with a reliable food source, alternate income and security through natural disasters and weather. There are also no costs for the families, enabling them to learn and pass on knowledge of this technique to neighbors and future generations. Besides the social benefits, Inga alley cropping improves the environment. After 12 years of using this method, one family prevents 712 tons of carbon dioxide from releasing into the atmosphere. The Inga Foundation estimates that the Land of Life project has kept 392,900 tons of carbon from the atmosphere. Furthermore, Inga trees improve soil conditions and provide nectar for insects. Reducing deforestation saves many homes for animals and plants.
The Inga Foundation has other projects in Madagascar and Congo, where it is working with local organizations to find a native tree alternative to Inga trees. More funding and research are required, but the organization hopes to begin alley cropping in Madagascar and Congo to prevent deforestation, increase food security and improve biodiversity.
– Madeleine Proffer