By Renée Johnson, Executive Director
“Process makes perfect” is a bit of a mantra around the offices of Sustainable Harvest International. Of course, within international development, I know there is no such thing as perfect. But deliberate, thorough research and planning have become a cornerstone of how we implement our programming. And few things are more important to get right than the selection of a new region in which to work.
Recently, we moved our office in Belize to Corozal and are setting our sights on several new communities in that region. For the past three months, our Belize staff (and an eager intern from EARTH University) have been immersed in a community-level analysis. Led by Country Director Leonardo Pech, the team used our standardized community selection criteria to rank 24 potential communities. After careful consideration, the communities of Chunox and San Luis rose to the top of the list.
In February, I traveled by plane, truck, ferry, and foot to visit Corozal, Chunox, and San Luis, the parts of Belize where we plan to work for the next couple of decades.
SUGARCANE FOR MILES
Compared to other parts of Belize, this northern region bordering Mexico has far fewer trees and many large monoculture farms. The landscape was mostly beige—fields of sugarcane for miles.
Ask any farmer in the region about the sugarcane industry and you’ll hear the distress in their voice about its decline and the resulting economic impact. Sugar accounts for 60% of Belize's agricultural exports. Nearly 50,000 acres in the northern part of Belize are dedicated to sugarcane production, yet the price has been steadily declining for years. Most sugarcane farmers in the region are in need of alternative ways to support their families that are not tied to this depressed commodity.
Sugarcane wasn’t the only obvious difference. In the nearby Orange Walk district, thousands of acres have been deforested by Mennonite farming communities, turning formerly tropical forests into vast tracts of land that resemble the conventional farms of the Midwestern US. While Belizean Mennonites contribute significantly to the agricultural output, the environmental impacts of their farming practices are devastating.
As anyone practicing sustainable farming methods knows, yield is only one part of the picture. Large-scale deforestation in an area full of ecological biodiversity is not only a sight for sore-eyes, it contributes to climate change, loss of wildlife habitat, erosion, etc. Seeing both the monoculture of the sugarcane industry and the massive deforestation projects furthered my sense that we’re in the right place.
Despite the widespread loss of diversity, there is still much left to protect in this region. The nearby 22,000-acre Shipstern Nature Reserve is home to flora and fauna of all shapes and sizes. It provides habitat for manatees, crocodiles, lizards, snakes, butterflies, and over 250 bird species. Shipstern’s mangroves, lagoons, and flat wetlands offer some of the best bird-watching sites in Belize. During an afternoon at the Lamanai Mayan archeological site, we quieted to hear the distant howler monkeys at home in the jungle.
The juxtaposition between a healthy jungle ecosystem and the beige monoculture of the sugarcane fields, for example, is jarring. A healthy forest landscape buzzes with bird calls, insects, and rustling leaves. The soundscape of the sugarcane fields is stark and barren by contrast—there’s little to attract the ear. Of course, true sustainable development must heed not just the sounds of the environment; it must listen to the voices of people, too.
In the months before I visited Belize, the local staff had implemented our tested approach to selecting new communities, for as we know, anecdotes alone, do not a decision make!
In fact, we rely heavily on statistics collected both by the Belizean government and our staff to select new communities. Our process carefully considers the following parameters:
- Human development index (health, education, income)
- Agro-ecological conditions (deforestation, biodiversity, contamination, soil/land use)
- Economic activity (agricultural, forestry, crafts)
- Population's commitment and interest (available resources, need for change)
- Strategic/geographic location (basins, protected areas, marginalized rural areas)
The importance of #4 (the population’s commitment and interest) cannot be overstated. In order to gauge a community’s interest, we host community meetings and visit families one-on-one. It’s a reciprocal relationship—the community members themselves must be as invested as our staff, who will visit these communities almost daily for the next five years.
Having the support of community elders, like Chunox village councilor Edibijes Mesh is imperative. Edibijes helped circulate news about the first community meeting in Chunox. As we establish our partnership with these farmers, Edibijes will continue to help spread the word among interested families.
Again and again, we find that it’s not uncommon for families to be wary of our work when we first set foot in a new area. Many families have had the all-too-common experience of interacting with development organizations who promise to make changes happen overnight without investing in the sustainability of that change, only to find the projects failing. Though we don’t provide the handouts that other development organizations do, most families welcome the opportunity to work alongside a dedicated trainer in exchange for the long-term expertise and structure our program brings. The payoff isn’t immediate (or perfect) but for those that stay dedicated, it’s significant!
After extensive surveying of the environment and culture of this region, it was clear to me that our unique approach to environmental conservation and sustainable farming was very much needed there, and that our staff had done an excellent job of identifying communities and ecosystems in need.
Throughout my week in Belize, I couldn’t help but think ahead to my return next February. I envisioned the transformation we’ll see. A woman who was too shy to step out from the darkness of her home will proudly give a tour of the new herbs and vegetables growing in her kitchen garden. An aging sugarcane grower will be relieved when he tells us he can feed his family again after years of declining income. I look forward to the gift of sharing a meal in a family’s home, partaking in vegetables grown in the soil that is currently depleted, neglected, and littered with trash.
For all the time spent on process and management, at the end of the day, it’s about a family sharing a meal they grew and prepared together, and the tree left standing as a result of their more ecological approach. THAT is the real perfection we strive for.