Food autonomy in the tropics

The only sustainable food ecosystem able to provide diversity of nutrients in the tropics is the food forest. Two situations may occurs;

  1. Existing native forest (Atlantic Forest, Amazon, …), in this case if the forest is mature, and protected (as it is the case in Brazil), little can be done to obtain the necessary amount of nutrients you will need unless you live in a large area and mimic the diet and way of living of native Indian.
  2. Deforested (or semi-deforested) area, in this case the problematic is how to shorten  the period necessary to produce your own food in the first years. This article will develop the key elements to consider in this objective.

Identify the necessary nutrients suitable for a human diet…

…and match them with vegetables or animals you can afford to grow and raise at the earlier stage of your settlement;

3 main types of nutrients are necessary for a balanced diet;

  1. Carbs (carbohydrates). They represent the main source of energy for your body. They are a slow sugar and fibres source and represent a deposit of energy.
  2. Proteins (the nitrogen part your body requires). You may picture protein as the soft skeleton of your metabolism involved in the key areas like growth, hormonal system, immunity , …
  3. A set of specific nutrients, if found in smaller quantities still absolutely essentials for you survival (Vitamins, complex molecules, …)

Considering that the 3 sets of nutrients are necessary the strategic plan to develop a food production should ensure the vegetables or animals production to fulfil all these requirements.

Starting from scratch ; in a deserted area

It is not uncommon to start a Permaculture farm with the ambition to reforest and regenerate a land entirely eroded, over exploited, with little or no infrastructure. I personally stick to the idea that ” the problem is the solution” since reforesting in this condition gives you the opportunity to create an extremely dense food forest in fine. At the same time you´ll create a forest, you´ll have ample freedom to orientate this forest in the objective of human food and habitat production assuming that human food is edible by most of animals, not so picky in the choice of their nutrients. Moreover having an extensive field of possibilities in term of biodiversity settlement you may enlarged the spectrum of food production both for human and for the food web supporting the ecosystem. You may as well help the necessary migration of the fauna and flora to warmer and different climate situation (adapting to global warming). Reminder; the main threat from climate change is the slowness of species migration (specifically the vegetables) to follow the geographical shift of climate conditions.

The first phase consist in the identification of the plants and animals able to resist the harsh conditions found in a deforested area in the tropics. Maybe some of you are familiar with this kind of situation; When there is no vegetation; the next day already, after a rain fall, the sun imposes its dictatorship ; dries everything , burns all vegetation which is not weed and create a very difficult environment to work with , and a land where finally leafcutter ants remove the entire foliage of any seedlings newly planted. Not far from hell it seems…

In this kind of situation little can be done but planting pioneer vegetation (see forest succession) to create the mulch which will allow you to sustain the cultivation of edible  plants in the following years.

The first year do not expect to attain food autonomy in this context but instead prepare a patch of your land with mulch input (or mulch + manure in an ideal situation if you have the financial resources or good connection to afford it). Here are the plants you may cultivate at start if you enrich your soil with organic matter;

Cassava (called Aipim in Brazil) is an incredible plant; resilient, able to resist drought once settled, able to grow in full sun in tropical latitude, rich in fibers and nutritive elements in addition to carb and able to grow in soils poor of nutrients. With good care (watering at the early stage of the planting) you can obtain a harvest in less than one year.

Ora-Pro-Nobis (Brazil) from cactus family contains 25% of proteins and other nutrients. Ora-Pro-Nobis (OPN) maybe the equivalent of Moringa although we lack the same level of study on this plant that Moringa has. OPN is more resilient than Moringa and will produce biomass more rapidly, that can be used in juice or cooking. You may propagate the plant quickly and start to harvest leaves after 6 months. Arrowleaf elephant ear (called Taioba in Brazil)  is a good source of green and can grow well in a banana circle humidified by grey water.

Pine Apple (providing these additional nutrients you´ll need). This plant can be started with the crown of the fruit although will be much quicker to grow from the sprout emerging from the stem after the fruit harvest. If you enrich the planting spot with manure and add mulch to protect the soil from heat you may have a result after one and half year. Another source of vitamins is banana. Then the banana trees need to be  planted below a source of grey water with a ton of mulch in a sandy soil (clay will impede the growth of the tuber).

Additionally you may plant sugar cane (needs a lot of organic matter mixed with the soil and good watering at start), which will provide with a source of sugar. You may as well have some chicken to control insects and arthropods and give eggs, a nutrient very complementary to your diet. Chicken must be kept away from your planting. A possible strategy could be planting in Zone 1 and have chicken errand in the other zones, making sure that you protect the tree seedling you planted for reforestation from chicken . In the next years the set of plants described here before can be pushed in zones 2 and 3 as they do not need so much care, dedicating zone 1 for more domesticated plants. The chicken could then be more confined assuming they will be nourished with the kitchen waste and some plants cultivated specifically for them and already established during the first year.

This diet can become the outcome basis after the first year of cultivation. After that more you plant more you´ll diversify your diet. Citrus is a very good complement and can provide with very useful fruit after few years. Monguba (Castanha do maranhao) provide with nuts after just few years as well. Both citrus and mongubas are sun resistant.

Harvesting spread over time

The issue with a fruit forest maybe the seasonality of harvesting (although some garden vegetables can be cultivated all year around). The months of summer are the period of most of the harvesting when it comes to fruit. It implies either the capacity of storing the fruits for later consumption or trying to spread the fructification over time.

  1. Food conservation. Fruit drying can be done with a solar drier. Jam is another method of conservation with low energy consumption.
  2. Fructification spreading over time. This can be obtained in different ways;
    1. planting species which have atypical period of harvesting. For example Mangaba (Hancornia speciosa) provides with at least 3 periods of fructification along the year.
    2. Planting different species therefore with different periods of fructification
    3. Planting different varieties of the same species
    4. Planting the same species in very different locations assuming the context will influence slightly the period of fructification.

In the case of cassava it is important to consider that planting should be done by steps over time to spread the harvesting and not have all the plants ready to harvest at the same time.

Plants like OPN, Moringa, Taioba are perennials and can be harvested regularly over time.

Following years

Having settled the basic food production with plants which need little care (Cassava, OPN, Pineapple) and planted pioneer support and fruit trees, the following years will give time and resources (mulch and possibly chicken manure) to diversify the diet accordingly to culinary and dietetic interest. From the second to third year the forest will still be young and the trees will be avid to capture all the soil nutrients and humidity available. The rhizosphere of the trees are then very quick to compete with the roots of annuals you´d want to plant there and overwhelm any small plant, specially if fertilized with a “delicious” compost. Either these annuals (vegetables) can be planted in stand alone bed, in vertical garden close to the kitchen or away from trees.

A sound strategy could be to experiment first the culture of plant identified as easy to cultivate focus on the one which need less work since an important part of Permaculture activity in the first years is the development of habitat, infrastructure, reforestation and specific support functions (chicken coop, dry toilets, wood stove, worm farm, fish pool, …). Over the years, newly gained global fertility and biodiversity will ease the production of a larger spectrum of food having more nutrients in the soil and a more balanced and protecting food web in the ecosystem.

Ideally the processes of harvesting, cooking and planting can merge to facilitate the cycle of human nutrition.


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