The Toledo District is comprised of a mosaic of protected areas, communities and state lands. It is the least developed region in the country of Belize but features the most pristine forests, remarkable rivers, extensive cave networks and offshore cayes. Toledo is home to diverse cultures – from Mopan and Q’eqchi’ Maya, to Creole, the Garifuna, East Indian, Mennonite and Mestizo. It is also a district that has experienced rapid rural population growth combined with slash and burn agriculture which has driven land scarcity as there are limited fertile farming land areas. Slash and burn agriculture involves farmers clearing and burning a plot of land to cultivate annual subsistence crops until nutrients are depleted. Once depleted, farmers move to new areas, leaving the plot to fallow or forest to regrow for up to 15 years.
Realizing these challenges and identifying solutions, Belizean conservation organization Ya’axché, focuses its work in an ecologically sensitive area within the Toledo District called the Maya Golden Landscape (MGL). Ya’axché’s geographic focus area, the MGL, is a 770,000-acre landscape of globally important protected areas covering a diverse range of ecosystems. It forms part of the nationally and regionally important Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which is the only remaining broadleaf forest link between the Maya Mountains and the forested coastal plains of southern Belize.
Under its Community Outreach and Livelihoods (COL) Program, Ya’axché works with 8 indigenous communities in the MGL. The program focuses on empowering communities in conservation through environmental education, capacity building, trainings in leadership, governance, micro enterprises and on-going extension support to mentor farmers in implementing climate smart agricultural practices. One of the climate smart farming practices which Ya’axché has been promoting to reduce the growing pressures on forests and biodiversity in the Maya Golden Landscape is agroforestry. Agroforestry is a sustainable farming practice where crops such as cacao are grown among trees. Agroforestry diversifies income for farming families, reduces erosion on farm slopes, generates layers of mulch that helps prevent soil desiccation and supports habitat conservation.
In 2012, seven years after adopting and promoting the use of agroforestry by Ya’axché, a 31-member cooperative called the Trio Farmers Cacao Growers Association (TFGCA) with support from Ya’axché began the dialogue with the Government of Belize for access rights to Maya Mountain North Forest Reserve. After extensive consultations and lobbying, a 15-year permit for 936 acres of land within the Maya Mountain North Forest Reserve was secured for TFCGA to implement cacao-based agroforestry. This is Belize’s first official community agroforestry concession which is utilized and managed closely by Ya’axché and the farming group to increase farmers’ food and income security as well as to rehabilitate degraded land which was heavily used in the past for logging and cattle ranching. Ya’axché has been instrumental in establishing this community agroforestry concession, seeking investments, providing technical and material support to the members and leadership of the TFCGA. The strong partnership between both organizations enable sound decisions relating to the agroforestry concession to be made; this is done through consultations with Ya’axché staff, TFCGA board of directors and its membership.
Guided by a management plan, the farmers began planting 2 acres of cacao in 2014 with over 165 acres established and over 58,000 trees planted at the end of 2017. In 2018, it is estimated that 1,000 pounds of wet cacao beans will be harvested and in 2019, as the cacao trees continue to mature, 90,000 lbs of cacao beans is projected to be harvested from the plots. In addition, farmers who are engaged in bee-keeping have extracted 800 lbs of honey in 2017 and 2018. The honey has all been sold locally with future potential for exports. The agroforestry concession benefits the 31 farmers and their families, impacting over 150 individuals.
In anticipation of the harvest that will commence in 2018-2019 from the concession, Ya’axché is exploring avenues for enterprise expansion, including that of obtaining international certification to garner maximum price and constructing a cacao drying facility for chocolate production. In addition, both the TFCGA and Ya’axché have seen the potential for ecotourism activities. Ya’axché and TFCGA continue building on momentum and sharing with other stakeholders the successes of the agroforestry concession model, one which can be replicated in other forest reserves in Belize. The initiative is a true understanding of harmony with nature for the benefit of stakeholders in southern Belize. Many partners and donors have supported this incredible work of engaging communities in the management of natural resources while improving their livelihoods in southern Belize.
Article by: Ya’axché Conservation Trust
For more details, contact:
Ya’axché Conservation Trust
20A George Price Street
Punta Gorda, Belize