A New Path for Belizean Farmers
In a groundbreaking effort to bolster Belizean agriculture, the UK Government, through its Biodiversity Challenge Funds, is set to usher in a transformative project. The initiative will empower smallholder farmers in Belize, paving the way for an array of opportunities to grow native plants and trees native to the region. Dr. Neil Stuart, an academic from the University of Edinburgh and the visionary behind the project, shared his perspective.
“When we think about farming, having ‘all your eggs in one basket’ can be a risky strategy, if that one crop is affected by drought, pests, or falling prices. Belize has many native plants that are well adapted to the local climate, but not everyone knows how to grow them.”
“In this project, we will carry out growing trials and set up a series of demonstration sites across Cayo District with native plants that can be grown well. Farmers will be encouraged to diversify their crops with local plants for food, shelter, and even the possibility to sell any surplus.”
A Game-Changer for Belizean Agriculture
The ambitious project will be spearheaded by Belize Botanic Gardens (BBG), the primary in-country partner. It encompasses expanding nursery cultivation, conducting planting trials at BBG, and the establishment of four demonstration ‘agro-forestry’ gardens in the Cayo District. Judy Duplooy, Director of BBG, views this initiative as a golden opportunity to put the Garden’s expertise in growing both native and exotic plants into practical action.
“Since the pandemic, the demand for learning how to grow one’s food has surged. Last year, we ran a small project called ‘Gardens to Go,’ where people received a starter ‘planting basket’ and training on how to grow them. We were amazed by the interest in growing, even if it was just in their backyard.”
“This new project will allow us to expand the variety of plants and training we can provide from our nursery, and create a series of permanent demonstration plots at our partner institutions.”
H3: Empowering Farmers with Knowledge
Rudy Aguilar, Co-Director and Head Gardener at Belize Botanic Gardens acknowledged the farmers’ willingness to adapt but emphasized the need for guidance.
“It’s not that farmers don’t want to change their ways or don’t understand the threats from climate change. They just don’t want to take the risk of trying something untested on their own. This new project will focus on providing them with the know-how so they can plant and grow the seedlings we provide to them. With additional training, they will be able to continue growing more successfully.”
An International Commitment to Sustainability
The British High Commissioner to Belize, H.E. Nicole Davison, lauded the project’s timing as food security challenges continue to affect Belize, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the world at large. She highlighted the significance of the two-year project, made possible through the UK Government’s Biodiversity Challenge Funds, in fostering collaboration among academia, NGOs, and small farmers.
“Similar projects are being funded worldwide as the UK continues to lead global efforts in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. From a regenerative and sustainable standpoint, generations of Belizeans will benefit from growing their own food using modern techniques aimed at restoring biodiversity and achieving better food security.”
Cultivating Knowledge for the Next Generation
The project aims not only to work with pioneering farmers but also to continue the backyard gardening initiative for individuals without farmland. Additionally, it will establish demonstration gardens at Belize Botanic Garden, Galen University, and Mopan Technical High School, with a focus on educating students and school children about these lesser-grown native plants and trees.
Denaie Swasey elaborated on the educational aspect of the project.
“The project objectives align with Galen University’s commitment to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for Climate Action and Life on Land. Galen’s partnership with the Belize Botanic Garden will enable its students to attain firsthand knowledge of national initiatives for Forest Conservation and Management, including plant identification, forest restoration, and agroforestry.”
“The program further enhances the knowledge and skill base for students within the University’s Environmental Science Program to better serve the country of Belize as environmental advocates.”
Restoring Biodiversity with Endangered Species
The project also extends its scope to the Vaca Forest Reserve, where it will establish an agro-forestry demonstration to educate local farmers with the support of Friends for Conservation & Development (FCD).
Dr. Zoë Goodwin, an expert from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) who has worked in Belize for many years, emphasized the restoration of biodiversity through the inclusion of endangered trees and plants.
“By including some endangered trees and plants in these baskets of plants, we can promote the growing of more endangered species, which helps to restore biodiversity to the landscape.”
Duncan Macqueen, Head of Forestry at the International Institute for Environment & Development (IIED), encapsulated the project’s essence:
“We all need to eat, and we all need to make a living; this project is about thinking how smallholder agriculture can be part of a plan for restoring biodiversity to some of these degraded landscapes and giving individuals incentives to do this.”