Belize Permaculture – Adventures in Service Learning

Belize Permaculture – Adventures in Service Learning

When you tell people you’re going to Belize they immediately picture palm trees and snorkeling and tropical drinks with little umbrellas in them.  So what is the difference between a vacation, a cultural exchange and a service learning experience?  Read on and hopefully you will understand and appreciate the difference as much as I have learned to.


January 2-12, 2013, 23 students from Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, WI travelled to Orange Walk Town, Belize on a service learning trip in cooperation with the non- profit organization Peacework. Orange Walk Town Belize is in the northern part of the country near Guatemala. The group was made up of 10 Information Technology (computer) students, 10 Nursing  and 3 Horticulture students.  A faculty member from each of these disciplines also participated and I was fortunate enough to go as the Horticulture instructor.


Planning for the trip was extensive with classes in culture and language  required of both students and staff.   I had incorporated service learning into my classes in the past but practicing in it in such an intense way in Belize made me much more aware of its benefits and complexity.  While we tried to plan for the experience as best we could, all three groups agreed that as soon as we got there, we had to radically alter our ‘best laid plans’ and be flexible to the situation and people involved.   This was one of the hardest things for us to do but also proved to be one of the most beneficial to experience.  The first few days in Belize were challenging as we realized we had to basically scrap a lot of our planned teaching agenda and change direction to meet the needs of our Belizean students and partners.  This brought a lot of frustration and anguish to some students, who thrive on being well prepared.  It was uncomfortable for students to teach without much preparation.  They had to rely on their education and apply it in a very direct and immediate way.  They had little time to prepare for teaching some topics but instead had to have faith in their abilities and just do it, and they did!

The plan for the horticulture group was to teach permaculture at Belize High School of Agriculture (BHSA) in the village of Trinidad about 20 minutes north of Orange Walk, Belize.  This high school was established in 1984 by an expatriate from Nebraska, and it looked like it, with vegetables planted in rows, in two large squares, probably about an acre total.  We also planned some short teaching trips to Trinidad Primary School where they also have a school garden.


One of the most time consuming tasks for me in planning for this teaching experience was to learn about horticulture and fruit and vegetable growing in Belize.  I knew nothing about tropical horticulture and it took a lot of research to even begin to understand the climate, soil, vegetation and food crops we would be working with.The first place I began was studying the ecosystem, and especially the soils, of Belize and the tropics.  The ecosystem of the Orange Walk District is classified as a Lowland Broadleaf Forest and Semi-deciduous Rainforest with some trees losing leaves in response to a ‘dry period’ from about December to May.  The original rainforest that the ancient Maya experienced was a diverse ecosystem of immense trees forming a canopy so thick that only streaks of sunlight could filter through to the forest floor. This is often been described as the “cathedral” effect.  The understory, being deprived of sunlight, consisted of young trees with large, thin leaves. Heleconia, ferns and other shrubby plants grew where a few rays of light penetrated the forest floor and dampness collected. The forest floor would have been a thick mat of decomposing plant material and riddled with invertebrates. Lianas and other vines weaving from tree to tree, while orchids and bromeliads would have hung precariously on the trunks and branches above.


I also soon discovered that the conventional farming methods exported from North America are especially unsustainable on tropical soils due to many factors but especially nutrient cycling. Organic matter and plant nutrients are held in rainforest trees and don’t accumulate as they do in temperate zone soils due to the constant heat and moisture.  In North America the cold temperatures of winter stop decomposition and allow organic matter and humus to accumulate in soils.  he traditional slash and burn agriculture practiced in the tropics works for a short while as the nutrients held in plants are released back to the soil, but only temporarily.  The cycle of slash and burn agriculture decimated much of the original rain forest while conventional agriculture, with all the tilling and rows and tractors, took care of a lot more and converting the forest to grasslands for cattle farming basically did in the rest.  Very little rain forest remains today so I was glad to see what’s left. Permaculture and food forest farming are ideal for this ecosystem.

We arrived at BHSA on Jan 3 for two days of continuing education classes for high school faculty, who came from a wide range of disciplines.  Teachers from math and science, agriculture, social studies, literature, language, construction, counseling and computer science participated.  The teachers were quite reserved this first day but most of them seemed receptive to the permaculture ideas we were trying to convey. Perhaps the first shock to my system was the condition of the classrooms which consisted of basic cinder block construction, with concrete floors and small, old, wooden desks and chairs, all in need of a good power washing and a few coats of paint.  It made for a very interesting context to teach in, considering we had only recently dedicated our new Pike Creek Horticulture Center and I had just began teaching in this state-of-the-art facility.   I brought my laptop and a projector to show power points with images and some short videos and we managed to get it all up and running. We even had internet service which seemed really odd but wonderful. The condition of the building makes little difference in learning where enthusiasm is present.   It’s just a bit more comfortable!

The next day we returned to the school, which coincidentally was my birthday.  I was greeted with hugs and kisses and birthday wishes by all the teachers who had somehow found out about it.  Several of them brought me presents of tropical fruit which I had mentioned I had never tasted.  Sapodilla, star fruit, a big cocoa pod, grapefruit and oranges were deposited on my desk.  At lunchtime they produced a large and delicious birthday cake, complete with candles and everyone sang Happy Birthday ! We divided up the fruit and cake at lunch time and had quite a feast. The thoughtfulness and kindness of my teaching colleagues and students meant a lot to me.


The teachers were not so shy the second day and seemed genuinely interested and excited to learn more about permaculture.  We soon found out that many of these teachers were also gardening enthusiasts and wanted to learn about permaculture to practice at home.  Our training focused on the ten principles of permaculture, composting, plant guilds, keyhole gardens and establishing a food forest.  Petroleum oil has recently been discovered in Belize so we also discussed ‘Peak oil’ and the problems associated with  fossil fuel dependency.  One thing that’s apparent,  the people of Belize understand the value of their natural resources, not only in sustaining people but also in attracting the ‘clean’ business of eco-tourism and related development. The teacher training was complete Friday afternoon.  We met with the horticulture teacher and Vice Principle to discuss purchasing some mallets, wheelbarrows and other supplies using funds donated by Ball Horticulture Company. The teacher agreed to purchase these items over the weekend and would have them available for classes on Monday to build a keyhole bed.  We were also able to donate quite a few horticulture and agriculture textbooks. I  donated my personal copy of Rosemary Morrow’s permaculture book.  The books were put on library reserve for the teachers to check out, and like all great teachers, I could see their faces buried in these books at the end of the training.


On Saturday the GTC group travelled by bus to Lake Progresso, a beautiful lagoon about an hour north of Orange Walk.  There we met with Youth For the Future, a group advocating for youth rights and concerns.  The core group consisted of about 10 high school and college age kids.  A stage with a sound system and microphone was set up near the lake and one of the first things that happened was the Youth group sang the Belize national anthem.  The GTC group then got on stage for their rendition of America the Beautiful which sounded especially beautiful hearing our harmonious voices rise in the warm tropical air so far from home.

The Youth for the Future kids were a dynamic, well-spoken, smart group of young adults. The leader of their group gave a short speech on the importance of connecting youth, education and industry in Belize.  These smart kids will go off to college in America or Europe to study electrical engineering, math and marine biology but find it difficult to return to Belize as there is limited industry to provide jobs for them.  The future of Belize depends on these smart kids returning to lead their country.  The need for entrepreneurship and investment is great in Belize and with a stable government, abundant labor pool and natural resources this seems quite possible.   A great day was had by all swimming in the lake, listening to music, eating chicken dinner, dancing and playing cultural awareness games with the Belizean youth.

The food on this trip was extensive and excellent!  Each morning we dined at a little restaurant near our hotel and ate lunch at the school. The homemade school lunch was the same everyday and consisted of of rice and beans, chicken and cabbage salad.  Marie Sharp’s hot sauce is famous throughout Belize, made in Orange Walk, and slathered on everything. Every evening we had a huge dinner at a nice restaurant, often featuring local Mayan specialties.  Orange Walk is known to have the best tacos in Belize but half way through the week I had to really cut out a lot of the rice and starches and tortillas.  I could not however give up the delicious refried black beans!  I think its coconut oil that gave then such a tasty flavor.

Saturday night we visited the House of Banquitas Museum and Cultural Center where we learned about the history and culture of Belize and participated in a cooking demonstration.  We learned a lot about the great melting pot of Belizean culture including the native Mayans and later Spanish, Mestizo, Caribe and Arawak ethnicities.  One of our black students made an interesting observation in that in the he feels that in the US we think we are a melting pot of cultures but they all live very separate lives.  He felt that in Belize the different ethnicities were truly mixed and everyone was aware of their cultural identity and heritage.


We learned how to make tortillas from scratch starting with soaking the corn in lye, grinding the corn into a meal, patting them into a round shape and then cooking them on a flat iron pan over an open fire. We actually got to make our own tortillas and eat them with homemade salsa.  The women demonstrating the cooking were dressed in beautiful hand embroidered outfits; and then we sat down to another huge dinner at a nearby restaurant!


Sunday was an ‘Indiana Jones’ type of adventure with our visit to the ancient Mayan ruins at Lamanai.  This region of the world was the site of some of the longest surviving civilizations in history.  The Lamanai site was occupied continually for over 6,000 years until smallpox and yellow fever brought by the Spaniards wiped them out.  One of the reasons for their longevity was their proximity to the New River, a large fresh water source.  We learned about their ingenious methods for using the river to produce food in times of both drought and flooding.  They created a system of ‘floating gardens’ or Chinampas along the river and also developed an extensive and deep canal system that served both to prevent flooding in the wet season and to provide irrigation water when things got dry.


The trip began with an exciting boat ride up the New River with our knowledgeable captain and tour guide stopping to point out plants and animals along the way.  At one point he pulled the boat near the shore to see a spider monkey in the tree. One of our students had a piece of pineapple that she was able to feed the monkey as it swung down from the tree, of course in a flurry of photo shoots.   We saw the home of John McAfee the anti-virus software millionaire who only a few days before had been arrested for allegedly murdering another American in San Pedro.  His compound of several simple but beautiful thatch homes on nine acres along the river was on sale for only half a million dollars!  I wonder if the internet works consistently….


The Lamanai ruins are set in a relatively undisturbed rainforest which of course was a delight to the horticulturists in our group.  Many of the plants in the park are thankfully labeled so we were able to identify all the trees and plants we had only read about.  Our guide took us along the medicinal trail and described how the Mayans used different plants including Brazil or Maya nut, Copal, Mahogany and many others whose Mayan names escaped me.  We learned that the Mayans would sacrifice virgin girls and boys to their Gods during times of drought.  They did this by inserting several thorns from a poisonous plant into the vagina or penis with death coming quickly.  No wonder Christ would become so popular later….


That night I began experiencing muscle aches and chills which at first I thought was just soreness from climbing the temple ruins but when the diarrhea began I knew I was probably getting tourista.  Luckily we had Sue Herman-Voss, the nursing instructor, to care for the few of us who got sick.  She recommended I immediately begin taking the antibiotics I had brought with me and some Ibuprofin.  She also gave me an anti-nausea pill and I went to bed early that night. Sue then had to tell my students what was going on and that I might not be able to teach tomorrow. They experienced some panic at the thought that they might have to do all the teaching without me but  the next day but I woke up feeling better, not great, but thankfully good enough to carry on. One of our students was not so lucky and had to stay at the hotel and recover this day.

Monday was an especially difficult day for us as the horticulture teacher we were supposed to work with called in sick and no one was around to help us.  After our wonderful experience the previous week we thought perhaps we had been just an amusing show for these people and their interest in us was over.  However it was the first day back at school for students after Christmas break and understandably things are often a bit chaotic the first day.  I found myself in a classroom of about 50 Belizean seniors ranging in age from about 16 to 22 years old.  Students in Belize sometimes have to take time off school to work or to help farm, care for family or  save money and return later to complete high school. School is not free in Belize so students have to fund their schooling beginning with the primary grades all the way through college.  Like all teenagers, this group was excited to be back with their friends after a long break and was a talkative, lively bunch.  I was seen basically as a substitute teacher, and like American teens, they put the susbstitute teacher to the test.  Being unfamiliar with their culture or classroom norms, I was unprepared for classroom discipline which made for a very uncomfortable teaching experience that we had to handle alone. Interestingly enough classroom management techniques appear to be the same worldwide and with a few icy stares, reprimands and stops we carried on with class.   We managed to get through the theory part of the lesson and then spent a lot of time building a keyhole garden outside.  The plan was to construct a keyhole garden using Palmetto logs that were piled behind an old barn.  The only problem was the ill teacher was also supposed to bring the tools we had agreed to purchase – a saw, mallets, wheelbarrows. So here I was trying to build this structure with absolutely no idea where anything was and with no tools.  Some of the teachers and kids finally came around and helped me find some cardboard and machetes. It’s amazing what they can do with a machete and they were able to cut the palmetto logs to the right size with them.  In America we couldn’t even imagine doing this without a chain saw!  We managed to get the students to drag the poles over to the bed area and measured out the circular shape of about 6’ in diameter. The next problem was how would we get the poles in the ground without even a hammer?  One industrious girl just picked up a big rock and  began pounding away at the post.  It wasn’t very pretty but it worked – sorta. With a little coercion we got all the posts cut to length, sharpened on one end and pounded into the ground.  They were pretty wobbly but the form was taking shape.  We were also able to begin laying the cardboard and organic material that makes up the base of the keyhole garden.  One of our horticulture students worked with the Belizean kids to cut and collect grass, dead palm fronds and some sort of Acacia or legume growing out back.  By the end of the day I was really amazed, and proud, that we had managed to create the beginning of a keyhole garden.


On the sidelines of our efforts stood several teachers, including the construction teacher that had attended the teacher training sessions the week before. I know these teachers were probably unsure of how much they should try to help me or how welcome their offer of assistance would be.  Near the end I basically pleaded with the construction teacher for help! It was obvious our rickety rock pounded posts would not survive the next rainstorm!  H eprobably also figured people would think he and his construction students were responsible for this embarrassing strcuture so he finally jumped in and took over stabilizing what was basically a fenceHe produced a chain saw – yay! – a sledge hammer and some sound wooden posts to secure the palmetto logs.  He then wound a couple strips of barb wire around the whole thing which made it looked amazing better and most importantly stable!  As I reflect on this day I realize how proud I was of that rickety structure, constructed of little more than my desire to see something built! Creating something wildly imperfect lured the construction teacher into getting involved.  If I’d been able to build this thing perfectly he would have had no incentive to help me, to touch it, and make it his own….  Facebook pictures and information posted several days later show this teacher is now constructing a second keyhole bed, this time using new fence posts! Perfect

We only had an hour each day to spend at Trinidad primary school which wasn’t nearly enough time.  The children were beautiful, happy and curious and we  longed to spend more time with them.  They have an excellent garden and had already incorporated compost and were using swales to capture water.  We were able to identify a problem with soil alkalinity caused by planting to close to a burn pile with the alkaline ashes causing high pH problems.  We donated a big bunch of seeds and I gave the principle a flash drive with all the permaculture training information.


The next couple days teaching students went much better as the horticulture teacher arrived with the supplies and his classroom management skills! We still had to adapt our lesson plans on the spot but with his help it went a lot smoother. He was  important in managing the classroom and keeping students directed.  In the end I really liked the idea that we were team teaching.  I was delivering new content and he was relating it to previous instruction, future assignments and the culture of Belize students.

The last day we had the kids work in groups to design a food forest on the school grounds. Each group selected a different location to create a food forest incorporating the seven layers of plants we had discussed in class.   We gave them some simple design directions and they drew plans on paper using markers to make colorful plant symbols.  The horticulture students, myself and the BSHA horticulture teacher worked with the groups individually to guide them in developing their ideas into drawings.  The lesson ended with each group presenting their drawings, and like students everywhere, a lot of them were painfully shy and had a hard time presenting their work.  I was amazed at some of their ideas and really pleased to see we were able to teach this new concept of agroforestry and permaculture so effectively.

When we arrived at the BHSA I saw a school that seemed fragmented and unsure of its direction.  The large garden plots seemed overwhelming to me and I certainly empathize with how difficult it can be to get students to do this physical work – or find enough time to do it in an already full curriculum.  Agriculture and farming are not considered good career options by many students in the US and Belize, although in America that is changing with new interest in local food, urban farming and sustainability. While  agriculture is still very important to Belize the only real options for BHSA agriculture students upon graduation seems to be working in the sugar cane industry.  We didn’t see very many small farms or family farms producing fruits and vegetables, only sugar cane and a few smaller plots of sorghum and corn. I read that 80% of the food supply for Belize is imported.  So the idea of permaculture seemed to resonate with the BHSA students and staff as a new way of doing things that the entire school could get excited about.  Permaculture also aligns agriculture with environmental science which is a much more popular area of interest to young people. Young people may not be too interested in becoming farmers but they are very much interested in working in the environmental field an with sustainable practices.  Marketing sustainable agriculture and permaculture as environmental sciences makes them a lot more attractive to young people.


The last day in Orange Walk was spent visiting a vegetable cooperative in a tiny village too far away.  What was supposed to be a short trip to a vegetable farm turned into 1.5 hours on a tooth rattling road.  We did get to see the Mennonite farms and learn how the original Mennonites came from Germany about fifty years ago.  They have become very successful farmers primarily raising beef and dairy cattle.  It was quite strange to see these very blond, blue eyed kids running around speaking perfect Spanish in their dark blue clothes and bonnets. Many horse and buggys were seen on the road with women holding a baby in one hand and the reins in another.  No car seats here!  The vegetable farm was a conventional row system using water pumped from a well. The farmers complained that demand for vegetables was soft and they sometimes had to throw away food as they had no buyers.  They have no way to process any of the food by drying, canning or freezing.  I began thinking of how they might work with the Mennonites, as who would know better than German Mennonites, how to can, pickle, dry and preserve food.  I  saw an opportunity to create a Belizean label of dried vegetable soups or ‘rubs’ or dried vegetable and spice mixes.

The produce cooperative was interesting but again evidence that importing north American agriculture doesn’t always work.  These farmers were too far from market so it cost a lot to transport the vegetables. The irrigation pump also cost a lot for the diesel to run it.  This in a climate where it rains every day for about ten minutes os it seems they should be able to capture some of this rain for irrigation. Belizeans don’t really eat a lot of vegetables either. What they do eat like are fruits.  So a permaculture guild system of fruit trees and vegetables with swales to capture rain water seems like a better plan.  Back out that bumpy road we drove to enjoy a lovely dinner in a thatch hut on the banks of the New River


With our BHSA training complete we packed our bags to spend our last day in Caye Caulker relaxing at the beach.  Caye Caulker is the home of our Peacework in country contact, Joni Velasquez.  Joni is a Canadian who found herself spending a lot of time in Belize and about five years ago started the one and only high school in Caye Caulker named Ocean Academy. Caye Caulker is a wonderful island paradise and was a great place to end to our Belize adventure.


We were finally free from a tight schedule and could choose what we wanted to do and when to do it.  The first night I simply escaped for a quiet dinner alone without 25 other dining companions!  As much as I truly enjoyed everyone who participated in this trip it was very nice to just be alone with my thoughts and start to say good bye to Belize and my exciting adventure. The next day a lot of students went snorkeling while others shopped and some just sat in chairs by the water.  I managed to have a nice, healthy breakfast with Sue the nursing instructor, shop a little with Cheryl the IT instructor, got an excellent massage and then met up with Joni to give her some advise regarding her home and school gardens.  The big problem on this island is a lack of soil and I quickly realized that the coconuts growing wild all around could be used for their fiber.  Shredded coconut coir fiber is used in the greenhouse industry as a media component and would make a cheap and readily accessible soil replacement here.  The only issue is how to harvest and shred it.  The day went too soon and ended with watching the sun set from a pier with a bunch of students and Sue.  Packing for home took some time with all the souvenirs and treasures we bought. Luckily we had an extra empty suitcase and were able to help haul everyone’s loot home.


The trip home was easy and uneventful.  Our connections were smooth and on time, immigration and customs no problem.  Arriving home around midnight with temperatures in the low teens was tough after ten days in the tropics but seeing my husband and kids made it worth it.  Here I am 8 days later with only memories and a peeling sunburn to remind me of my wonderful Belize adventure in service learning.


As I reflect on this experience I know that it was well worth all the time and effort I put into it.  I’m proud of the keyhole garden we constructed, in all its rickety imperfection, and the excitement BHSA has for permaculture.  I do think this will provide the school a new focal point all the teachers and students can rally around.  The computer instructor is already sending us updates and pictures of the gardens through our facebook site and is planning to have students create and print labels for plants and garden signage. The language teacher will have students find the English, Spanish and Mayan words for plants to use on labels.  Literature and social study teachers will ask students to interview elders about plants and medicines they used in earlier times and write papers with the idea that traditional plants and knowledge need to be preserved.  The construction classes are already taking off with building a new keyhole bed.  The horticulture teacher is planning to convert a small area on campus to the establishment of a food forest.  The school is really coming together on this project which was everything I had hoped for and more!

As for me I learned to trust my teaching experience and be more flexible with change.  In fact I’m enjoying being a little more intuitive in my teaching and feel I’m able to respond more to the needs of my audience than my need to stick to the ‘lesson plan’.  I feel more confident to try new things and appreciate that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing exactly.  I know I want to continue doing more international service learning projects with Gateway Technical College students and perhaps with my own family and teenagers.

A vacation is about observing the world around you.  On vacation you are always the outsider looking in on a culture.  Everything is ‘prettied up’ for you and everyone is nice because, of  course, you are paying them.  On a service learning experience you really become immersed in a culture with normal people like teachers and students and workers.  We spent a week in their classrooms, teaching, learning, laughing and eating lunch with them.  I had the best birthday ever, we accomplished our goal of building a keyhole garden together and I felt like we really made a connection.  I’m very intrigued at how plants and gardening can bring diverse people together in the common language of food and beauty and nature.

Thank you Gateway Technical College for this exceptional experience, thank you Ball Horticulture for supplying all the seeds to be used in the high school teaching garden as well as the cash donation which went a long way in  purchasing supplies.  Also a big thanks to Lowes Home Improvement who also donated seed packets which we handed out to kids and schools. Thank you Belize for this warm and wonderful experience! .  For more picture please visit our Flickr site. 

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