From monocultures to food forests

The landscapes in Costa Rica‘s south are dotted with monocultures, above all oil palms and cattle pastures. Monocultures are easy to maintain and seem on the surface to be economically efficient. The problem lies in the fact that monocultures work diametrically against the circularity of nature. The resulting devastating consequences are the loss of ‘ecoservices’ which provide clean air, clean water, fertile soils, stable climate, biodiversity and many other things essential for our survival. These losses are about to present humanity with its greatest challenge to date.

To address this challenge, we developed concepts to convert palm oil monocultures into profitable, biodiverse polycultures. In these designs, we aim to follow the structures and patterns through which naturally-grown forests sustain themselves. As a result, they have a positive impact not only on the community but also on the environment.

We illustrated the blueprint of one of our concepts in a short animation. Of course, no two plots are alike, which is why this blueprint needs to be tailored to the specific circumstances.

The Spanish version can be found here.

Help us make the next steps!

We are thankful for your support! To help us make the next steps, by providing funding or otherwise, please get in touch.

Background: the challenges of monocultures

There are several problems arising when crops are grown in monocultures:

First, monocultures quickly deplete the soil from nutrients the plant needs to grow. In consequence, chemical fertilizers become necessary: they further deplete the soil by killing off microorganisms essential for its fertility and water-holding capacity. The impoverished soil then is not only infertile, but also helplessly exposed to erosion – we literally lose the ground under our feet.

Second, monocultures are a feast for diseases and plagues. Conventional agriculture therefore uses pesticides and herbicides, once again ignoring their devastating consequences: poisoning waterbodies, killing bees and other pollinators, causing sterility in birds etc. In addition, monocultures are always at risk of being completely eradicated by pesticide-resistant pathogens or insects. In Costa Rica, banana monocultures have suffered this fate before.

Third, the need for land in industrial agriculture is enormous. This need is often met by the deforestation of old-growth rainforests. Currently, the average size of a soccer field is being cut down every second! As usual, consequences are being ignored.

Last but not least, growing only one crop exposes the farmer to unforeseen price drops which can cause painful losses in earnings.

Erosion is one of the most striking consequences of the practices of conventional agriculture. Nature’s remedy are plants that we ironically call weeds. These can grow where other plants can’t: they draw nutrients from the depth of the soil to the surface and as they die, they make them available to more delicate plants. The answer of conventional agriculture, however, is to poison them with ever stronger herbicides, setting off the vicious cycle illustrated above.

Food forests are a central part of the larger solution

These challenges are systemic – they cannot be solved individually. Food forests provide a big part of such a systemic solution: they address this interlinked set of challenges and offer benefits for nature, the economy, and society simultaneously. Watch the video above to see what this can look like in practice.

Benefits for nature

While the nutrient content in the soil in such a design is improving from year to year, food forests also have countless positive effects above the surface: the flowers of the support trees provide food for bees and other pollinators. These, in turn, increase the yield of the crops and attract birds that nest in their branches and keep insects under control. The organic mulch from the regularly pruned trees protects the soil from drying out and eroding, while slowly releasing nutrients for the crops. In addition, the plantation‘s resistance against pests and diseases is significantly increased through the wide range of plant species.

Benefits for the economy

Regenerative agriculture can be profitable. We compared the average revenue and profits of a monoculture and our food forest design, based on conservative estimates of the prices effectively paid by intermediaries in Costa Rica, and found that food forests can be even more profitable than monocultures. We can send detailed information on the collection of the data and a full breakdown of revenues and costs upon request.

Most products can also be processed into value-added products which may add to income significantly. For these we envision accreditation through internationally recognized seals of approval, such as Fairtrade and others.

Benefit for the Society

Well designed food forests also address some of the most pressing socioeconomic problems in this area:

The high unemployment in rural areas is counteracted by the higher demand for workers in polycultures. As a pleasant side effect, working in a food forest is also much more enjoyable than on a monoculture – a fact that our own employees in the Refugio can confirm!

Our polycultures involve the local population in the process of tree and plant production as well. Above all, the growing of the robust nitrogen-fixing trees and the Mexican sunflowers can be outsourced and represents an additional source of income for everyone who owns a small garden.

And last but not least: following up with the production of value-added products opens up new labor markets, leading to the division of labor and to cooperatives that, in turn, promote community cohesion.

From monocultures to food forests

The Refugio Tinti is located near La Gamba de Golfito, a rural community of about 700 people. Unemployment, poverty, lack of education, and environmental degradation are just some of the interlinked challenges the community is facing. Attempts at improving living standards in the past were, if at all, met with just temporary success. We believe that environmental protection and community development must go hand in hand.

Therefore, we envision the establishment of a permacultural education and consultation center in La Gamba. The long-term goal is to plant a seed for the development of a fully sustainable ecovillage: through education, we aim to encourage the community to regeneratively cultivate their land, which improves food security, health outcomes, and quality of life in general. Through workshops and vocational training we want to facilitate acquiring relevant skills within and for the community to keep their earnings among themselves.

The cornerstone of the proposed project is the transformation of the rather dreary local school grounds, around one hectare in size, into a sustainable and self-sufficient natural system. This gives children the chance to learn about the power of nature’s toolbox in increasing food security and living quality first-hand. Below is an aerial photograph of the school’s current state and underneath, an illustration of the permacultural system which could be developed on school grounds (credits to Allan Campbell).

Simultaneously, the permacultural education and consultation center will hold regular workshops for the entire village on subjects like sustainable food-cultivation techniques, methods to achieve self-sufficiency through value-added products, ways to strengthen community cohesion, and paths to new sustainable income sources. The establishment of a microcredit system can enable villagers to implement entrepreneurial ventures based on the skills learnt in workshops.

In a session of interviews with so far over 10% of all village inhabitants, we found overwhelming support for this project. Furthermore, the Costa Rican Ministry of the Environment and Energy, the mayor of La Gamba, the National Parks Foundation, and the principal of the school have already provided letters of support for the project.

Immediate and long-term goals

Over the four years of implementing the project, we aim to:

Complete the transformation of the school grounds

Enable continuous learning of schoolchildren in hands-on lessons to foster sustainable thinking

Offer regular workshops for the village population

Consult and assist village inhabitants to apply the techniques taught to restore and use their land

Encourage local production and consumption through the establishment of a village market, vocational training and a central connecting phoneline

In the long term, this project has the potential to kick off the gradual restoration of hundreds of hectares of land, currently degraded by unsustainable conventional agriculture (e.g., palm oil monocultures or cattle farms) and wasteland. The eco-market will naturally sharpen the appreciation and awareness for truly sustainable agriculture.

Help us make the next steps!

We ware thankful for your support! If you are interested in supporting this project as an investor, please get in touch with us via info@refugiotinti.com or +506 8816 1107 (Alexander Tinti). We are happy to provide an extended project description as well as a detailed financial plan.

Permacultural education center in La Gamba

Conserving remaining natural habitats and actively restoring destroyed habitats is crucial to our survival. 

To do so most effectively we combine several interconnected methods: microorganisms, biochar, nitrogen fixers, pioneer trees, plants that draw minerals from the depth of the soil, mulching weeds instead of uprooting them, and succession.

So far, 24 hectares at the Refugio have been successfully restored in record time. The failure rate of young trees in our reforestation was no more than 3% while a failure rate of over 10% is often considered normal in this area. 

The rapidly increasing biodiversity is also encouraging: Several endangered species have found a new home in the Refugio and are breeding here, such as currassows, boat-billed herons, green ibis and many more. River otter, ozelot and the greater grison (the rarest mammal in Costa Rica) are some of the most exciting sightings of mammals in the Refugio. The government and the University of Costa Rica support us with camera traps in documenting the number of species.

Reaching beyond our borders

Biological corridors are necessary for the many animals that don’t dare to cross open areas. By connecting protected wooded areas, like national parks and forest reserves, animals can roam freely between them which prevents inbreeding and ensures genetic diversity.

The government of Costa Rica proposed several areas for such corridors: one of them is AMISTOSA, connecting the national parks CorcovadoPiedras Blancas and La Amistad. It covers an area of 50,000km2 and as we are located within that area we want to contribute to its reforestation.

Depending on soil conditions and other circumstances, different areas require different combinations of tree species and different approaches in reforestation, ranging from complete reforestation to island reforestation and, In some cases, even leaving the land undisturbed to recover by itself.

Our basic approach for reforestation is illustrated in the short animation below: 

‘Island reforestation’ is a method, where only patches of reforestation are established in reasonable distances. Birds and mammals drop seeds in between these ‘islands’ which then recover in a natural way. 

Especially sensitive areas are wetlands, the most endangered habitats in the world. If leaving them undisturbed for self-recovery is not appropriate, they require careful landscaping, phytoremediation and a very selected choice of trees. We successfully reforested several hectares of wetland in the Refugio without draining the land.

The simplest and least expensive approach is to acquire land, legally protect it by declaring it an ecological protection area and leave it undisturbed to recover by itself. In Costa Rica a special law (‘Servidumbre Ecológica’) protects such a land permanently.

Help us make the next steps!

We are thankful for your support! To help us make the next steps, by providing funding or otherwise, please get in touch.