Building Ecologically Conscious Economies

Throughout Chesapeake Semester, and during Journey 3 in particular, we have explored the intersection of economy and ecology. At Blue Creek and Maya Mountain Research Farm, we saw and learned about the strikingly different ways that this intersection can take form. Some of these ways offer both ecological and economic benefits, while others exploit ecology for the sake of economy. The latter, though not always inherently detrimental, can be unsustainable if done without taking the fragility of the forest’s ecology into consideration.

We read about two industries in preparation for our visit to Blue Creek, which is located in a tropical rain forest. One of these focused on the industry surrounding timber products and the other discussed the industry of non-timber forest products. Chicle is an example of a tree that had very high non-timber value. For many years, it was used as a base for chewing gum. But overharvesting combined with an inadequate supply to keep up with global demand led to the collapse of the industry in the mid-1900s. Mahogany is an example of a timber product that has historically been highly exploited for profit and is still being harvested today. An estimated 3.5 million cubic meters have been harvested since 1800, and knowing full well that the continued timbering of mahogany is unsustainable, 57,000 trees are cut each year to serve the U.S. demand alone (Bridgewater). One of the interesting things about mahogany is that it can only be extracted from the wild. Mahogany cannot be grown on plantations, because in high densities it is attacked by the larvae of a shoot-boring moth, killing the trees. This is a problem that emerges repeatedly in monoculture.

Chris Nesbitt, the owner and founder of Maya Mountain Research Farm, has the answer to this crisis: polyculture. He practices agroforestry, specifically ecoagriculture, which can be defined as “the integration of biodiversity conservation, livelihoods, and productivity in ecological” (Schrotta and da Mota). He essentially has grown his own tropical forest from what began as the depleted soils of a former cattle farm. The hundreds of plant species he grows interact in a way that creates a productive farm in addition to providing a plethora of ecosystem services. We learned about utilizing vertical structure in agroforestry, in which there are levels of plants that all interact with one another in ways that are mutually beneficial. An example of such a structure would be cedar (canopy, producing shade), coffee (sub-canopy), and black pepper (understory). Chris was very proud of how he had managed to wed economy and ecology through polyculture. He describes the practice as economically resilient (if one species fails, then there are many other species that continue to be productive), as well as ecologically beneficial. Looking at Chris’s model, it is hard to disagree with him–the biodiverse forest he’s grown, also supports his livelihood. We should continue to seek to expand the polyculture model in order to sustain the agricultural industry of Belize’s (and the rest of the world, for that matter) without having to compromise ecology.

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