Food Forests

All over the world forests are cleared to make way for development. New roads, car parks and maize fields make up our modern landscapes where once there were forests. Cities grow and forests dwindle. There are many who, like me, find this tragic. Forests are beautiful, spiritual places and to allow them to be replaced by car parks and shopping malls is heartbreaking.

The obsessive pursuit of economic growth means that such nostalgic sentimentality as I have displayed above is often viewed with cynicism. Economics have come to define our parameters for success and forests are judged accordingly. You could argue that the intrinsic value of a forest is more important than its economic value. For instance, in a single season one mature leafy tree produces enough oxygen to keep ten of us breathing and forests do far more than just provide us with oxygen.

Forests clean our soils by absorbing harmful pollutants and slow water runoff: flash flooding can be dramatically reduced by a forest or by planting trees; Great Britain take note! Trees are carbon sinks meaning that they store carbon as wood and not as a greenhouse gas. They clean the air by absorbing pollutants. They provide shade, a highly desirable trait here in Malawi. Trees act as windbreaks, hold soil in place to reduce erosion, pump water and minerals from deep underground, and so on and so forth.

Of course lots of people are already aware of the intrinsic value of standing forests and are working tirelessly on reforestation projects; indeed there are those who are convinced that the only way to save the planet is to plant trees. This can lead to a desperate approach to reforestation which seeks refuge in large numbers. The result is that we’re bombarded with startling statistics informing us that 500,000 trees have been planted here and an area the size of Wales (it’s always the size of Wales and I’ve never known why) has been felled over there.

So reforestation efforts are often about planting large numbers of trees. In Malawi this often entails planting vast numbers of aggressive and invasive eucalyptus or gmelina. These trees are actually able to kill other trees by poisoning the soil around them. Sometimes efforts branch out to include other more local trees; acacias and the like. There is a fundamental flaw in this approach, regardless of which tree is picked for these reforestation efforts. What we should be doing is planting forests, not trees. After all, this is what the word reforestation implies.

Forests are complex systems and cannot simply be re-established by planting large numbers of one tree. The complexity of forests is illustrated by the symbiotic relationships that exist within them. For example, Brazil nuts need a certain type of bee if they are to produce fruit. This bee needs a certain type of orchid and the orchid needs healthy soil. Such complexity exists in all forest systems. If you just plant the tree and pay no attention to the system, you don’t get any fruit.

Ideally, we should never have disturbed such fragile and complex systems but in many areas the damage has already been done. Our job then is to protect what is left and re-establish what has been destroyed, as best we can.

The basis of a forest is its soil. In one pinch of undisturbed forest soil you might find approximately one thousand million bacteria. These creatures are the life blood of the forests. Dead soil cannot produce a living forest. Roots of plants growing in undisturbed soils form links with soil microorganisms in a symbiotic relationship without which plants cannot thrive. Any successful reforestation effort should consider how best to re-establish the rich living organism that is healthy soil.

Another lesson that we can learn from nature in our reforestation attempts is one of succession. Nature does not replace a cleared area of forest with a single tree seedling as we might do. Rather it will use pioneering plants, starting with ground covers and closely followed by shrubs and small trees. The purpose of such species is to prepare the ground for the next stage by covering and protecting the soil, facilitating natural water and nutrient cycles and ultimately dying, to be replaced, in due course, by a full grown climax tree.

This system provides opportunities for diversity to thrive and for the soil to be enriched; many pioneering species take nitrogen from the air to store it in the soil. If you’re thinking that this sounds like an arduous and impractical process for humans to consider in their short lifetimes, think again. It should really be looked upon as an opportunity to grow a vast array of different species, and so of different crops.

By now I imagine you can see where I’m going with this, after all the title does provide something of a clue. Food Forests, an idea pioneered by permaculture, draw upon the examples provided by natural native forests and carefully incorporate non-aggressive exotic varieties. As the name implies the focus of a food forest is the production of food but let’s dig a little deeper.

Forests are roughly made up of seven layers: the canopy, lower canopy, shrub layer, herbaceous layer, groundcovers, rhizosphere (root crops) and a climbing layer (vines). Establishing a food forest means designing, planting, maintaining and protecting a highly diverse system with all the layers of a natural forest, encouraging multipurpose species. Planting a field of gmelina, for example, would involve just planting the climax layer. That is not a forest.

In essence what forests are about is diversity. A diverse system is healthier and more productive. Not more productive of one single crop on an economy of scale but more productive in overall benefits provided. Food forests emulate this diversity to create systems that provide all the services of a natural forest (building soil, regulating water resources etc…) but with more of a focus on crops which humans can make use of, while encouraging the system to thrive.

Rather than rows of the same tree as far as the eye can see, the result is a dense forest of mango trees, acacias, citrus trees, coconut palms, guavas, towering tamarinds and mahoganies. Climbing up many of these trees are passion fruit, air potato, loofa and shushu. Pigeon pea, cassava, the purple flowering tephrosia, hibiscus, blackjack, amaranth, basil and the big yellow flowers of the ringworm bush, occupy the shrub and herbaceous layers. Turmeric, arrow root and ginger grow in abundance. Aloe Vera grows here and there and cow pea, sweet potato, silverweed and watermelon crawl along the forest floor. The ground is strewn with a thick layer of decomposing leaves and grasses which will serve to build rich healthy soils and maintain that link with microorganisms.

The kind of forest I have described above is entirely possible. I would go further and say that it is our duty to provide such beautiful and plentiful systems for future generations. Food forests can go a long way to solving Malawi’s problems with malnutrition and hunger. In the example above, air potato is a carbohydrate which grows abundantly during Malawi’s hunger season. Pigeon pea and cow pea are great sources of protein. Papaya and moringa are rich sources of vitamin A. What’s more, many acacia trees are fantastic sources of firewood, which can be harvested without damaging the integrity of the trees, and mahogany is a highly desirable hardwood.

There are examples of success with such initiatives all over the world. Geoff Lawton’s Greening the Desert is a great place to start from the comfort of your armchair and YouTube. If you want to get out there and see some examples for yourself you could do worse than visiting Kusamala or Never Ending Food outside Lilongwe, Lukwe in the north, Panthunzi in the south, MOET on the road to Mangochi, Thanthwe in Monkey Bay or me in Kasankha Bay.

In absolutely no way is this mindless hippy idealism; a brush which has so often been used to tarnish permaculture’s image, sometimes with good reason. Of course it isn’t easy to establish food forests. Much care, dedication and attention is needed to protect young food forests from stubborn goats, ensure rainfall is used to its full potential and to build topsoil. It is also vital that the knowledge and understanding of food forests reaches those who need it most: rural farming communities.

The community I work with is beginning to embrace the idea and after just one year the results are startling. Just recently, at a community meeting, a gentleman announced that his little food forest had changed his life. His family, he said, had “been united by their love for their garden and their efforts to make it thrive.” An area which just last year produced nothing at all, is now home to over twenty edible trees and many other plants, including the prolific air potato, growing up a mango tree.

For centuries we have approached forests with brutality. Let us now view them with intelligence and compassion, as this gentleman has done. It isn’t too late for forests to make a comeback.