Saving forests and subsistence farmers – the Inga miracle

This is one of those stories that makes me want to shout ‘why doesn’t everyone know about this miracle?’ I hope you’ll be thinking the same thing when you’ve finished reading. It is a story about a sustainable resilient rural livelihood that lets subsistence farmers escape poverty, protect tropical forests, protect the climate, and work with – rather than against – nature.

Mike Hands was working for the Honduran government in the 1980s, surveying river-flood control, when he began pondering a question whose answer has led him to a revolutionary breakthrough for Central American farmers – and a way to save the tropical rainforests that are disappearing as they work to feed their families. 

As he saw forest after forest destroyed by slash-and-burn farming, Hands wondered: Why did the soil lose its fertility so quickly, so farmers had to move on after one or two years? Was there a farming method that would keep the land fertile and let farmers stay on the same land?

After 25 years of persistent research, academic study, and talking with Costa Rican farmers, he found answers to both questions. Using alley cropping with the Amazonian tree Inga Edulus, he has proven that it is possible to restore fertility to soils that have been repeatedly burned over a century or more, that it can generate both food and cash for tropical farmers, and that it means families can stay on land that remains productive year after year.

“The Inga system simulates what tropical forests do naturally,” says Hands. “It provides a layer of decomposing matter on the soil surface and recycles nutrients.”

Farmers like the system because it offers them food security and a nearby garden. They no longer have to walk for hours to reach a temporary site; family members can help out so crops can be more easily nurtured and guarded. The system also  produces a plentiful supply of firewood, and there is less need for weeding. And the farmers share the knowledge with each other, neighbour to neighbour.

Hands created the Inga Foundation in 2007 as a UK-registered charity to implement the findings of all those years of research and development.

Its flagship project is Land For Life, a 10-year program that supports up to 200 families in the area surrounding Pico Bonito National Park in northern Honduras, an ecologically important area that is threatened by slash and burn agriculture. The Cuero and Cangreal valleys, which border the park, are home to jaguars, pumas and howler monkeys, while the park helps maintain and regulate river flow and prevents erosion on the steep terrain.

The program works with each family to implement the Inga Model in the way that best suits them, and each new family plants a small number of Inga trees as an orchard to provide enough seed so three more families can take up alley cropping.

In 2012, the foundation established a Project Center in the Cuero Valley. It includes a demonstration farm, an Inga seed orchard, a tree nursery, education facilities and a cash crop processing plant. It is the nerve centre for spreading Inga Alley cropping across Central America.

He has won many awards for his work, including the Organic Farming Innovation Award Grand Prize in 2017, and he sees the possibilities if it spreads.”We want to use our demonstration farms and the 240 families with whom we are working to convince decision-makers and funding bodies that this really works; that the energy to make it work is actually not our own but that of the family members, young and old, who have planted, with our help, over 2 million trees in various agroforestry configurations, since the program’s inception in 2012,” he said in an interview then.

The scope is immense. There are an estimated 300 million slash-and-burn farmers worldwide, and each one clears about a hectare of forest a year. ‘El Salvador has been completely deforested, as have the virgin forests in the lowlands of Costa Rica, Peru, Honduras, Venezuela, Columbia and vast areas of Brazil,’ says Hands. And slash and burn is an increasingly significant factor in climate change, because as much as 40% of the planet’s carbon is stored in forest vegetation.

The foundation calculates that between 2012-2019, more than 284,000 tons of CO2 have been sequestered or avoided through the use of Inga alleys, and that this will reach 450,000 tons by the end of 2021.

So far the methods of Inga alley cropping have been adopted by farmers in Honduras, Peru, Belize, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Madagascar, DR Congo, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Laos, and Sarawak.

Sustainable rural agriculture offers a way for Honduran farmers to make a good living at home. Until now, says one of the farmers in the video above, we’ve never had a project that goes to the heart of the countryside.


Inga Foundation.

This Wonder Tree is a Game-Changer for Rainforest Agriculture in Honduras And Deforested Sites Worldwide. Good News Network, Jun 28, 2021

Innovation in Action: A Sustainable Alternative to Slash and Burn Agriculture. Organic without boundaries, Apr. 19, 2018

Up in smoke: a scientist’s mission to stop slash-and-burn farming. The Ecologist, Sep. 22, 2011

The Rainforest Saver. The Ecologist, Feb. 20, 2005

Fired with ambition. The Guardian, Apr. 21, 2004