Sisters are doing it for themselves in biodiverse Belize

In Belize, sisters Alice and Amelia are taking part in Planting Baskets, an innovative project that works with farmers to grow more nutritious local foodplants, spices and endangered timber trees using smallholder agroforestry. Duncan Macqueen discusses how the project is helping farmers to enhance on-farm biodiversity, climate-resilient livelihoods and food security.

Duncan Macqueen's picture
Insight by 
Duncan Macqueen
Duncan Macqueen is director of IIED’s work on forests in IIED's Natural Resources research group
18 March 2024
Two women standing in a forest.

Alice and Amelia show where they will plant their new agroforestry ‘planting basket’ with help from Belize Botanic Gardens (Photo: Duncan Macqueen, IIED)

Alice and her sister Amelia live in Benque in the foothills of the Cayo District in tropical Belize. They inherited their 50-acre farm, which their father ran for 30 years, four years ago. And as the sisters move towards retirement, their dream is to restore and live out on the land. 

On a farm that size, only a fraction (approximately four acres in their case) can be cultivated. They tend cocoyam, pineapple, soursop, mango and cashew alongside many other fruit and spice trees, palms for thatch, timber trees and medicinal plants. But they wish to ensure that the whole area is increasingly productive and well-tended, ready for their retirement.

Like many other farmers across Belize, Alice and Amelia want to grow what they need for food while also selling surplus for a reasonable income. So, when the Belize Botanic Garden (BBG) advertised they were giving out agroforestry advice and a planting basket of 60 or more food crops, spices, fruit and timber trees, Alice and Amelia jumped at the opportunity. 

Following interviews to check that the land really was theirs, and that they genuinely wanted to establish an agroforestry plot to restore landscape diversity and enhance climate-resilient landscapes, they were welcomed into the programme.

How agroforestry helps biodiversity and food security

BBG is the national lead organisation for a project by the University of Edinburgh, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh and IIED known as Planting Baskets (or more fully 'Upscaling innovative ‘planting-baskets’ to restore landscape diversity and enhance climate-resilient livelihoods).

Its objective is that opportunities for growing more novel combinations of local foodplants, spices and CITES-listed trees (trees listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) within smallholder agroforestry are evidenced and spread. Through Planting Baskets, BBG is collecting, storing, planting and distributing 113 species of native Belizean vegetables, herbs, spices, palms, fruit and timber – including endangered trees such as Dalbergia stevensonii (rosewood), Zanthoxylum eckmannii (prickly yellow) and Lonchocarpus castilloi (black cabbage bark) – and heavily logged mahogany and cedar.

Much of Belize’s agriculture involves industrial-scale monocultures that mimic a global pattern of alarming decreases in the numbers of plants and animals used. Of 6,190 animal species and more than 7,000 plant species historically used for food, just five animal species and 12 plant species account for 75% of calories consumed. 

This undermines good nutrition and exposes food supplies to increasing climate risks and pest and disease outbreaks. Farmers like Alice and Amelia, however, plough a different furrow: building their future food supply on a biodiverse base.

Climate resilience through agroforestry

Biodiverse Belize hosts a rainbow of useful exotic plants but local farmers still face the daunting prospect of climate change: hotter temperatures, less rainfall and more extreme weather events. Coupled with the rising costs of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, securing food and nutrition is a challenge.

To cope, farmers are adapting: diversifying their crops, managing water and enriching the soil with organic matter. IIED research shows that, globally, smallholders invest more in climate adaptation than all international climate finance combined – a staggering US$368 billion per year. Alice and Amelia are adapting too, by restoring fruit trees and digging a well.

Agroforestry is a brilliant natural solution. By combining trees and crops, farmers boost productivity, enhance nutrition and diversify income for climate resilience. They also contribute to global biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation. 

But agroforestry can be challenging. You need enough land, securely owned, for it to be worth farmers investing in. Agroforestry plots can take decades to establish – so farmers need annual crops to generate an income while slower fruit, spice and timber trees grow. And they need to know what to plant, where, and how to nurture each component. 

That is where BBG training and coaching will help. But even with support, farmers and their supporters often lack confidence: can unfamiliar complex agroforestry systems deliver compared to simple monocultures?

Building on IIED’s experiences

This is where IIED’s experience is proving useful. Through projects such as the Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) and Nature Nurture, IIED has been co-producing knowledge with farmer organisations on diversifying for climate resilience and advancing agrobiodiversity

IIED’s work with farmer organisations has generated rich knowledge about diverse models of agroforestry: diverse subsistence farms that combine crops, fruit trees and timber; shade-grown cash crop systems of cocoa or coffee; silvopastoral systems with protein-rich living fences and shade trees; and steep plots with erosion-control hedges and nitrogen-fixing trees. The models are almost infinitely variable depending on context, requiring farmers to experiment, learn and share. 

For Planting Baskets, IIED has begun a series of workshops to share these peer-to-peer learning experiences with agroforestry advocates in Belize, including the departments of agriculture and forestry, agricultural training institutes such as Galen University and Mopan Technical College, and NGOs such as Friends for Conservation and Development. The aim is that these organisations will go on to train farmers using agroforestry demonstrator plots established by BBG.

Overcoming challenges

For agroforestry to flourish economically, farmers need to form organisations to aggregate sufficient volumes of quality products from diverse farms to attract buyers and improve market access. But perhaps the biggest challenge in Belize is helping farmers overcome their reluctance to work together – and this is something Planting Baskets is actively encouraging them to do.

As this project has developed, demand from farmers and interest from other programmes and projects has overwhelmed limited funding. But this approach works: it links farmers to centres of botanical expertise and expands their learning from other farmers. It is clearly at the centre of solutions for people, nature and climate – and more work is needed to build the approach into ongoing projects in Belize and internationally.

To this end, IIED is working with partners to highlight the potential of scaling up agroforestry and biodiversity restoration within the many initiatives linked to Belize’s National Landscape Restoration Strategy. Internationally, IIED invites partners to channel support to smallholders organisations in programmes such as the FFF and Nature Nurture to save the earth’s skin by funding these groups that conserve agrobiodiversity globally.

As with many other countries, biodiverse Belize needs a big dose of collective action so that its rainbow of agroforestry species can deliver what farmers like Alice and Amelia dream of: sourcing what they need for food while earning an income from their surplus.