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– In one of Belize’s forest reserves in the Maya Golden Landscape, a group of farmers is working with non-governmental organisations to mitigate and build resilience to climate change with a unique agroforestry project.
The Ya’axché Conservation Trust helps farmers to establish traditional tree crops, like the cacao, that would provide them with long-term income opportunities through restoring the forest, protecting the natural environment, while building their livelihoods and opportunities. Experts say the farmers are building resilience to climate change in the eight rural communities they represent.
The agroforestry concession is situated in the Maya Mountain Reserve and is one of two agroforestry projects undertaken by the 5Cs, the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC), in its efforts to implement adaptation and mitigation strategies in communities across the Caribbean.
Close to 6,000 people both directly and indirectly benefit from the project which Dr. Ulric Trotz, science advisor and deputy executive director of the 5Cs, noted was established with funding from the United Kingdom Department for International Development (UK DFID).
“It is easily one of our most successful and during my most recent visit this year, I’ve seen enough to believe that the concept can be successfully transferred to any community in Belize as well as to other parts of the Caribbean,” he told IPS.
The Trio Cacao Farmers Association and the Ya’axché Conservation Trust have been working together since 2015 to acquire and establish an agroforestry concession on 379 hectares of disturbed forest. The agroforestry project was given a much-need boost with USD250,000 in funding through the 5Cs.
According to Christina Garcia, Ya’axché’s executive director, the project provides extension services. It also provides training and public awareness to prepare the farmers on how to reduce deforestation, prevent degradation of their water supplies and reduce the occurrence of wildfires in the beneficiary communities and the concession area.
Since the start, more than 50,000 cacao trees have been planted on 67 hectares and many are already producing the white cacao, a traditional crop in this area. To supplement the farmers’ incomes approximately 41 hectares of ‘cash’ crops, including bananas, plantains, vegetable, corn and peppers, were also established along with grow-houses and composting heaps that would support the crops.
This unique project is on track to become one of the exemplary demonstrations of ecosystems-based adaptation in the region.
The 35 farming families here are native Maya. They live and work in an area that is part of what has been dubbed the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve, which connects the forests of the Maya Mountains to that of the coastal lowlands and is managed by Ya’axché.
Farmers here believe they are reclaiming their traditional ways of life on the four hectares which they each have been allocated. Many say they’ve improved their incomes while restoring the disturbed forests, and are doing this through using techniques that are protecting and preserving the remaining forests, the wildlife and water.
Other members of the communities, including school-age teenagers, were given the opportunity to start their own businesses through the provision of training and hives to start bee-keeping projects. Many of the women now involved in bee-keeping were given one box when they started their businesses.
The men and women who work the concession do not use chemicals and can, therefore, market their crops as chemical free, or organic products. They, however, say they need additional help to seek and establish those lucrative markets. In addition to the no-chemicals rule, the plots are cultivated by hand, using traditional tools. But farmer Magnus Tut said that this is used in conjunction with new techniques, adding that it has improved native farming methods.
“We are going back to the old ways, which my father told me about before chemicals were introduced to make things grow faster. The hardest part is maintaining the plot. It is challenging and hard work but it is good work, and there are health benefits,” Tut told IPS.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) supports the farmers’ beliefs, reporting that up to 11 percent of greenhouse gases are caused by deforestation and “between 24 and 30 percent of total mitigation potential” can be provided by halting and reversing deforestation in the tropics.
“The hardest part of the work is getting some people to understand how/what they do impacts the climate, but each has their own story and they are experiencing the changes which make it easier for them to make the transition,” said Julio Chun, a farmer and the community liaison for the concession. He told IPS that in the past, the farmers frequently used fires to clear the land.
Chun explained that farmers are already seeing the return of wildlife, such as the jaguar, and are excited by the possibilities.
“We would like to develop eco-tourism and the value-added products that can support the industry. Some visitors are already coming for the organic products and the honey,” he said.
Ya’axché co-manages the Bladen Nature Reserve and the Maya Mountain North Forest Reserve, a combined 311,607 hectares of public and privately owned forest. Its name, pronounced yash-cheh, is the Mopan Maya word for the Kapoc or Ceiba tree (scientific name: Ceiba pentandra), which is sacred to the Maya peoples.
Of the project’s future, Garcia said: “My wish is to see the project address the economic needs of the farmers, to get them to recognise the value of what they are doing in the concession and that the decision-makers can use the model as an example to make decisions on how forest reserves can be made available to communities across Belize and the region to balance nature and livelihoods.”
Scientists believe that well-managed ecosystems can help countries adapt to both current climate hazards and future climate change through the provision of ecosystem services, so the 5Cs has implemented a similar project in Saint Lucia under a 42-month project funded by the European Union Global Climate Change Alliance (EU-GCCA+) to promote sustainable farming practices.
The cacao-based agroforestry project in Saint Lucia uses a mix-plantation model where farmers are allowed to continue using chemicals, but were taught to protect the environment. Like the Ya’axché project, Saint Lucia’s was designed to improve environmental conditions in the beneficiary areas; enhance livelihoods and build the community’s resilience to climate change.
In the next chapter, the Ya’axché farmers project is hoping that, among other things, a good samaritan will help them to add facilities for value-added products; acquire eco-friendly all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) to move produce to access points; and replace a wooden bridge that leads to the main access road.
Tut and Chun both support the views of the group’s chair Isabel Rash, that farmers are already living through climate change, but that the hard work in manually “clearing and maintaining their plots and in chemical-free food production, saves them money”, supports a healthy working and living environment and should protect them against the impacts of climate change.
Credit: Inter Press Service News Agency
In plain view of the mountainous terrain of Belize’s most southern district, Toledo, farmers of Trio Village have been facing a changing environment. Ya’Axche Conservation Trust approached the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC) to assist the villagers with combating threats that were exacerbated by climate related events. This involved deforestation due to lack of water, insufficient arable land and forest fires which threatened crops. The main initiative involved attaining land, donating cacao seedlings and providing technical assistance and training for climate resilient crops.
The Head of the Project Development & Management Unit at the CCCCC explained why the Centre became involved in the initiative. According to Dr. Mark Bynoe, “It’s not a case that these issues are new, it’s a case where these issues are likely to be exacerbated with a change in climate regime. So with that focus, we looked at projects within the Centre that we had and which could finance this particular initiative. We were able to find $250,000 US under the UK-DFID programme. So for the last two years we were able to fund this initiative in Trio Village.”
The partnership of UK-DFID, CCCCC and Ya’Axche came to fruition when the Forest Department granted a unique concession to allow agro-forestry within the Maya Mountain Forest Reserve. The implementation of this community forest concession resulted in 936 acres being leased to the project. The acres have been divided into sub plots for organic cacao farming and the concession includes an annual crop section for vegetables, plantain and honey harvesting.
Isabel Rash, Farmer, Trio Farmers Cacao Association
The project, completed at the end of April 2016, is having an impact on the lives of farmers like Isabel Rash. Rash admits the gruelling task is benefiting his future. While in the company of his family in Trio Village, Rash said “For the first six months we prepared our nursery with 28 to 30,000 cacao saplings. We eventually planted 250 plants per acre. It’s hard but we are doing it because in the future we don’t want to work for somebody else.”
“We want to work for ourselves. From there, when we start to produce more, my thoughts are that I can maybe just be a boss and have workers beside me…It’s five of us in my family. It’s my wife, my 14-year and 2- year old sons and me. I’m taking care of a little girl from my sister-in-law and my aim is to give them an education. That’s why I’m working hard. I want them to be different in the future.”
There is also gender considerations as 10 females are members of the Trio Farmers Cacao Association. The women have agro-forestry plots for planting cacao and a few of them are also involved in bee-keeping to harvest honey. 15 year old Cordelia Cabnal’s formal education ended after she completed primary school.
Cordelia Cabnal, Bee Keeper, Trio Farmers Cacao Association
Cabnal says, “The first time I harvested about 25 pounds and the second harvest is about 35 pounds. I am happy because I see that honey is good and now I have three hives. I want more boxes. I want to have more hives. To me it’s good because here it’s money. That’s what Mr. Sho says and he told us not to give up because this is money.”
Isodoro Sho, who trained the group in bee keeping, believes that, “In the future they will be the one showing the village people. The ladies that got involved will realize this is not only about cacao or pineapple but about saving a part of the rainforest.”
Christina Garcia, Executive Director of the Ya’Axche Conservation Trust
In response to how the Trio farmers plan to proceed following the closure of the project, the Executive Director of the Ya’Axche Conservation Trust, Christina Garcia says the members have been waiting for access to land for some years now. And now that they have it, Ya’Axche has observed full commitment from the farmers. Garcia noted, “It’s a direct result of the project. We’ve seen progress still happening after the closure of the project. Farmers are still planting their cacao and doing their under-brushing on their own. They’ve learned a lot from the training they received during the implementation of the project.”
The farmers, according to Isabel Rash, are learning new methods. Rash says, “We need to change because when we farmed from years past, we used pesticides and we burned. We can kill our own-selves smelling that pesticide and smoke. When we fall (trees) close to the river the river/creek, it gets dry.”
As annual crops such as bananas, beans, and plantains are being harvested, cacao planting could be increased by 25,000 to ensure farmers have a sustainable income. The Project directly impacts no less than 200 individuals that are part of the farming families.
Shade houses for alternative crops
Dr. Mark Bynoe and Isabel Rash
According to Dr. Bynoe, “We had to construct shade houses for protected agriculture. Why is this necessary? The whole concept of agriculture in that area is to have crops at varied periods of time. So the need for the shade houses is to pursue some cash crops farming in the immediate future. Revenue will be generated and the farmers will begin to see some returns as annual crops are maturing such as bananas, beans, plantains and so forth. And further down the road is the cacao plant. We have planted 25,000 cacao seedlings and we’re hoping to increase that to about 50,000 going forward, so we have a sustainable income to start with and farmers are less prone to deforest areas. It helps with soil protection. It helps with the integrity of aquifers and rivers, vital for the very crops they are cultivating. In total, we are looking at an entire system approach from the time they started farming to the time we withdraw. So that at the end of the day we are participating in poverty alleviation.”
Dr. Bynoe is very hopeful as he points out, “This is a pilot for the Centre but we are engaged in a number of adaptation initiatives. If this turns out to be a success story, if this translated into other areas of Belize, we can take it to other parts of the Caribbean. We do expect with the cooperation we have seen from the Ya’Axche Conservation Trust, the efforts from the farmers themselves, the support from Government, the Ministry of Agriculture who is providing extension services, the Ministry of Forestry who made the concession available, that we are indeed moving in the right direction.”
Images of the project: Trio Farmers Cacao Growers Photo Album