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This is such an important post by Kristen Krash over in Ecuador. I wrote an Earth Whispering a while back on the subject of letting go of control and allowing your land to be. But there is no one-fits-all answer or prescription. This is why I love and strive to maintain The Mud Home’s worldwide perspective. Because every space on this Earth has a different story. Each place and people face different challenges and possess different strengths. I’ll hand over to Kristen for her hard-won tips on land guardianship in the degraded tropics of South America, plus her fantastic hacks and money-saving tips on reforesting.
Are you sure you want to rewild?
So you have some land and you want to manage it in a way that's good for you and good for the earth. You have your garden and maybe even a food forest planted and you're wondering, "Now what to do with the rest of it?" Here I'll discuss three options, how to determine what is most appropriate for your land, why, and how to do it.
The first is simply to let the land be. Relinquish control. Rewild it. What a lovely concept, humans stepping out of the way for nature's innate wisdom to unfold. Perhaps you might need to build some fences to keep farm animals out of the area you've set aside, but intervention is minimal. It's the cheapest and least problematic way to manage land and allows wildlife to thrive where it lives best, away from people.
But..Before you have visions of a spontaneous Eden in the back 40, make sure your land is a good candidate for rewilding. Are there trees and shrubs on the land or nearby? A mix of undergrowth? Lots of birds and small mammals to help distribute seed? Bees, bats, and other pollinators? Great. Wild away. But if you are missing any or all of these crucial factors, your land may be degraded enough to need help. It's a disgrace really, but some ecosystems has been so badly damaged by human avarice and ignorance that they have reached a point of no return. Generous and thoughtful human intervention can (and should) set the regeneration process in motion.
Know your land’s eco-history
Note that not all regeneration is necessarily reforestation. In the American midwest, for example, just a few meters of natural prairie contains dozens of species of grasses and topsoil several inches thick. Compare that to the mega farms of soybeans and corn growing in chemical-laced barren soil. Any diverse multi-layered combination of plants that functions as a system is regeneration. Know the eco-history of your land before intervening.
The story of Ecuador’s forests
Forest is the mature result of many ecosystems, and forests are at the most risk of destruction. Where I live in Ecuador, there's a lot of grassy pasture. It's green and pretty to look at at, but there's nothing natural about it. This was a dense cloud forest, replete with jaguars and monkeys, not cows. Logging companies cut down huge swaths of trees, then sell off the stripped land as "ideal for cultivation." In reality, food forests originated in the tropics (5,000 years ago) for a good reason: without a protective canopy of branches above and network of roots below, heavy rains hit the delicate soil like a blitzkrieg, making a muddy slurry and leaching out nutrients. Fertility is quickly lost. The big plantations of banana, cacao, and palm are completely dependent on chemical inputs to pump out the crops. People who can't afford chemical-intensive farming sow grass for pasture, cloned GMO seed designed to spread and prevent any "competing" vegetation (i.e. trees) from getting a foothold.
The logging and agro-industrial barons aren't just cutting down trees, they are committing outright ecocide. In the rainforests of Columbia, Peru, and Brazil. In India, Borneo, Malaysia, and Australia. In nearly every country in Africa that is not yet a desert. Pastures and monocultures spread like a green plague, eradicating old growth forest, the animal species that live there, and the know-how channelled through generations, a treasure trove of plant lore lost forever.
Jump-starting the recovery
The good news is, where humans have done the damage they can also jump-start the recovery. The other day I pulled on my high boots and hiked over to an area of former cow pasture we haven't touched since we began working three years ago. Apart from a very few struggling pioneer shrubs, I literally clawed my way through an acre-wide ocean of chest-high grass that formed a mat so thick over the soil nothing else could grow. A veritable green desert.
In vivid contrast, on the land where we have taken action, over a thousand trees and plants of a hundred plus species now thrive, providing food for us, fodder for our horses, habitat for increasingly abundant wildlife, foliage for beauty and shade, leaf fall to build soil, and interweaving roots to prevent erosion. Our regenerated land isn't merely a bunch of trees; it's a developing ecosystem that will improve with maturity.
If those aren't enough reasons to regenerate, here's the biggest "why" of all: trees, diverse plantings, and soil rich in organic matter constitute the most effective terrestrial carbon sink on the planet. Conserving forests and regenerating stripped land are our best chances for mitigating climate change, hard stop.
Tips and hacks on how to get a forest started
Now that you're pawing the ground to get out and plant trees, here's some hard-won nuggets of wisdom onu how to get your forest started.
1. First, research. Find out what your land was like fifty or a hundred years ago. Talk to locals. Find out what trees live long and prosper in your climate. Native trees are wonderful, but you don't have to be a purist. We've planted mostly native and a variety of species from around the equator. Diversity is key to resilience. Biospheres are shifting as climate change escalates. Dry areas are getting drier, wet areas wetter, and the whole planet hotter. Choose plants that have the best chance of withstanding likely changes.
2. Whether you have an acre or five hundred, regenerate what you can. Our land isn’t huge, but it lies midway between two reserves, serving as a resting point for migrating insects and birds. Every reforested acre counts. Don’t think you have to do it all in one shot. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and if you have tough pasture and compacted soil like we do, it's hard work. Cultivate smaller chunks of land, expanding your forest outward from a center. Plant fast-growing trees first. As they begin to create shade, habitat, and biomass, the work gets easier and more visibly rewarding.
3. Start a nursery. Buying trees can get really expensive. Save and germinate the seeds from local fruit. If you have trees on your land, collect seed pods when they fall. Cuttings are also a good way to propagate. Don't spend money on seed starting kits and sterile soil and all that stuff. One part compost mixed with three parts soil from your land will go much further and the seedlings will be more adaptive once planted out. We’ve planted hundreds of fruit, nut, medicine, and valuable hardwood trees from saved seed and have hundreds more getting ready for field. All for free.
4. Open your mind to different kinds of “productivity.” All trees are useful and productive of the five F’s: food, fodder, fuel, fertilizer, and fiber. Even if you never use your forest for anything, it’s still producing a sanctuary for wildlife, preventing erosion, building topsoil, and sequestering carbon.
5. Look for help, financial and physical. It’s out there. Our tiny two-person operation recently received a grant of 2,000 trees from a reforesting foundation. Find seed exchanges where you live and if there isn't one yet, start it. Get volunteers to help you plant; fine skills aren’t necessary.
Don’t have land yet?
If you're reading this in your row house or apartment thinking, as I once was, someday... you can do something now. Donate to a foundation or private reserve. In my personal experience, smaller projects have very low overhead and high commitment to making a difference. Your $5 or $20 or $100 would assuredly be allocated to the critical task at hand.
Final word. You can only post so many horrific articles about razed forests and melting ice caps without getting abysmally depressed. Got climate crisis anxiety? Plant a forest, or help make it possible. Lead by example and others will follow.
Kristen Krash is the co-creator of Sueño de Vida, a nature conservation center, permaculture farm, and natural building experiment in the cloud forest of Ecuador. To learn more about the mission, courses offered, work exchange opportunities, and land for sale, see their website: http://www.suenodevida.org/our-dream
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