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J u le s P r e t t y a rg u e s th a t th e t im e h a s com e to p u t th e w o n d e r b a ck in to n a tu re - a n d th e c u lt u re b a c k in to a g r ic u lt u re .

WHEN you gaze from the top o f the Temple o f the Giant Jaguar, 96 metres above the floor o f Tikal, you look down upon the crowns o f giant rainforest trees, the branches o f which crack and snap as howler and spider monkeys leap and chatter. Had you been dropped here from afar, you might have been forgiven for thinking you gazed upon a wilderness.

and then abandoned as families move on to new sites. Over time, as population has increased and as others have come to log the forests, so farmers have had to reduce their fallow periods and thus returned to former fields too soon for natural fertility to have been restored. Both agriculture and the forest come under pressure - yields remain low or fall and the forest steadily disappears.

The Peten rainforest o f northern Guatemala is one o f the world’s hotspots for biological diversity, containing 200 species o f mammals and 500 o f birds. You would be right to be awed, but wrong about the wilderness. During the Mayan Golden Age, v between 250 and 900 AD, the t capital city, Tikal, supported a 1 population o f between 10,000 and 2 40,000 people. ? Since the mystifying collapse o f " the Mayan civilization, people have £ farmed with slash-and-burn z * methods. Fields are cleared in the < forest, cropped for a year or two

But on the edge o f the Peten forest farmers are using a magic bean to improve their soils and to save the rainforest. The velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens) spread to farmers when several Honduran and Guatemalan NGOs, in particular World Neighbors, Cosecha and Centro Maya, found that planting it between rows o f maize substantially increased cereal yields. Mucuna can fix into the soil 150 kilograms o f nitrogen per hectare annually - a free, natural fertilizer for farmers. For every hectare it also produces annually 50-100 tonnes o f biomass, plant material that is allowed to fall on the soil as a green manure, suppressing weeds and helping to build the soil. In this bean lies the protection o f the Peten rainforest. Build the health o f the soil and farmers no longer want to burn trees to create new fields. It is, after all, difficult and dangerous work and farmers would love an alternative. An improvement to soil health changes the way that farmers think and act. They see the benefit o f staying in the same place and of investing in the environment for the future.

Further west, along the border country o f Guatemala and Mexico, lies the Usumacinta River. It is another area o f extraordinary biodiversity. Inside the forest, this silent and eerie natural cathedral, the air is heavy with humidity and pierced with sunlight from the canopy far above. By some wonderful coincidence, this is the Cooperativa La Felicidad, or Happiness Co-operative. Here the whole community now grows

New Internationalist 353 I January/February 2003

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