Successional Agroforestry in the temperate and Mediterranean climates with Namaste Messerschmidt

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This is the second article sharing the work and life of Namaste Messerschmidt as a successional agroforestry teacher and consultant. This time we explore Namaste’s teaching approach and how he has become one of the most sought after facilitators to teach and implement systems in the mild temperate and Mediterranean climate regions of Europe.

In the previous article Namaste shared his early beginnings with Ernst Gotsch at the age of 12, how he had a hands on learning experience implementing two properties at a young age, and how he became one of the main consultants of the MST (the Landless Movement in Brazil) through a project that aimed to spread the practice of successional agroforestry as part of both food security and land regeneration policies. In recent years Namaste has also been working in France, Spain and Portugal, so part of our conversation gravitated around the implementation of successional agroforestry in these areas. Namaste shares, for instance, some information on Portugal’s dire predicament:

Portugal is living through a catastrophe. Everyone wants to move away from the rural areas to sell their labour in towns, and these areas are being taken by the agribusiness to produce cellulose in forest monocultures. This same industry, causes devastation in the whole country, caused the fires that have taken humans lives… They produce very little and create very few jobs, and their industry represents only 3% of Portugal’s GDP.

In part, I wanted to talk about successional agroforestry in Europe because I often hear people saying that this kind of forestry can only work in the tropics. Namaste’s own story in Brazil, however, demystify this assumption as a good part of his work is done in a region with over 20 frosts per winter. He shares that before being invited to teach and consult in Europe he had already worked with small and large scale farms, degraded and fertile soils, flat and hilly topographies, as well as different climates in Brazil. And in all of these places and conditions,”successional agroforestry is a way to give the plant an environment as close as possible to that it originally had in nature”, Namaste explains. According to him, these experiences adapting techniques and practices has helped him always think about what is the local context of a given area to then elaborate a design, a list of plants, specific recommendations, etc.

With time, we realise more and more that [successional agroforestry] is not a simple technique, it’s a set of principles. And once we learn these principles we can apply them anywhere. In most places I visited in Europe we can’t use bananas or cassava [to drive succession], but to use trees as a cycling nutrient element, as a producer of organic matter, to bring the forest back to agriculture, remain as principles.

Another thing that helps to speed up the adaptation of the principles to other regions and climate, and that he learnt a lot from MST, Namaste says, “is to let people bring their knowledge and integrate it, and seek to collectively adapt the principles to each place. In this way, no matter which climate, soil or people (an important part of the agroforestry system) you’re working with, the principles will work”.

We ran 4 courses in Portugal and with these courses we implemented different areas to different consortiums while thinking about their native species. As trees to be used for pruning, we used plantain, poplar and willow. Then we used the fruit trees that are common there like pears, apples, peaches, etc. So we did many designs with the aim of adapting the systems to their reality. So, in addition to teach, we had many moments in which we developed concepts together. It’s important to experiment with these concepts and we see that in agroforestry the farmer is also a researcher. We’re breaking these barriers and building networks so that the farmers can exchange their ideas and experiences.

I often say that we are colonised in subtle ways. And here a disclaimer is due; what follows in this paragraph are my views and interpretations and not Namaste’s. This resistance some people have to embrace technologies and practices when they did not originate in a developed country, is an evidence of it. The fact that the indigenous people from Australia and from Brazil, for instance, practised an agriculture that was much more complex than their conquerors could grasp is widely known today. Conversely, researchers, farmers and ecologists worldwide today know that much degradation has happened due to the fact that European invaders applied their farming techniques to areas and in climates where it was not suited. And yet, when successional agroforestry (or Syntropic Farming as it became known outside of Brazil), gains global momentum and attention as a tree-based regenerative farming practice, many people quickly dismiss it as a tropics-only-set-of-techniques. Even inside the permaculture movement I have seen seasoned designers dismissing it as a ‘fancy chop and drop’ or as ‘just a tropical food forest’. Worse still. Even inside the successional agroforestry movement in Brazil, little is said about how much knowledge has been recovered and developed by other agronomists, facilitators, indigenous people and marooned slave descendants  working in close partnership using successional agroforestry in different Brazilian climates and biomes. So it is no surprise that some overlook the body of knowledge and practices that form successional agroforestry.

At this point of our conversation Namaste mentions an excerpt of one of Pero Vaz de Caminha’s letter to the King of Portugal. Upon the invaders arrival in Brazil Pero Vaz started documenting their findings in what became known as one of the best descriptions of Brazil in the early 1500s. Here is the excerpt cited by Namaste:

They only eat this “yam” (referring to the manioc, then unknown to the Europeans), which is very plentiful here, and those seeds and fruits that the earth and the trees give of themselves. Nevertheless, they are of a finer, sturdier, and sleeker condition than we are for all the wheat and vegetables we eat.

Namaste’s point is that the invaders could not recognise the indigenous people’s agriculture because it was completely integrated with the forest ecology, and this was an ecosystem the Europeans knew nothing about it. “We need to get back to a forest based agriculture”, Namaste says.

The indigenous people of the Americas had this technology. One of the best soil that exists in the world is the terra preta, in the Amazon region. We know that the Amazon soil is considered poor, we know that the fertility in that area is in the forest and that if we deforest the area those soils can’t even grow grass properly. And yet in some areas there is about 2 to 3 metres deep terra preta de índio [indigenous black soil] that was built through agricultural processes and leaving a fertile soil behind. To us this [agriculture] was agroforestry.

Within this rationale of a tree-based agriculture, Namaste got back to the colder climates to explain the successional agroforestry’s take on food production.

The majority of the plants we eat belong to the clearings or the edge of forests. They belong to what we call ‘systems of abundance’. The problem is that we’ve lost the connection with the forest. In Portugal, for instance, we have too many degraded areas, and the forests stopped interacting with the country long ago. In these areas it’s important to think that you won’t be able to grow tomatoes or broccoli without cheating and bringing in some rock dust, some organic fertiliser, manure… But maybe we can grow rosemary, rocket, lavender… plants that are native in those areas. And these plants will work the soil, bring organic matter and cycle nutrients so that more demanding species can be introduced to create a forest. And once this forest is established, if you create a clearing [through management], what will grow is no longer rosemary, lavender, oregano. What will grow are plants that are suited for a richer forest soil.

When I asked Namaste about his work and how other people could follow his steps. He did not give the practical advises I was hoping he would share. Instead, he reflected on his many roles, and what he thinks is the core of his mission. And although our conversation went on, I will leave you with his comments:

I think it’s difficult to define my role. Sometimes I’m the facilitator, but sometimes I act as a motivator, a small business consultant, an [event] organiser, a producer… But often my role is to take the knowledge that it’s being applied in one area and take it to another and vice versa. It’s to be an exchange facilitator rather than a technical consultant. And we see that it’s essencial to have more people with the mission of disseminating agroforestry. Unfortunately there are still very few of us. There is room for everyone and there are many things to be done and developed.

Upcoming Agroforestry Courses

Forestry in Practice – With nearly 30 years of experience and literally thousands of farm plans under his belt, Darren J. Doherty comes to the Northern Rivers (NSW, Australia) to teach the course “Forestry in Practice“. The course equips farmers to holistically integrate trees in their landscapes and enterprises. Darren, who also works closely with livestock producers, has been an adamant promoter of tree integration for all farm enterprises. The course will run on the 9th and 10th of February, 2019, at the Holos Regenerative Design learning site in Brunswick Heads, Northern New South Wales.