Forest Gardeners

Reading Time: 10 min

“There was nothing but a small shed and a backyard, and within a year you could already begin to see a small forest.”

Last year I took a four day syntropic agriculture course in Ibiza. With my teachers Daniel Meneses and Rodrigo Marques, along with 20 other eager students, we planted a 600sqm edible forest for the Tierra Iris community to enjoy throughout the year. After the course, I kept in touch with Rodrigo and Daniel, and in March this year, I went to Tepoztlan, Mexico to visit the project they had launched with Victoria Sánchez in 2021: Solar.

Tepoztlan is a charming town, only two hours south of Mexico City. Driving in you are greeted by imposing rocky mountains, each with its own personality, peering down onto the colourful homes and cobbled streets. Rodrigo and I arranged to meet on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Solar is in the residential area of town, a 20 minute walk from the town center. When I arrived, the gates opened to reveal a light pink country home with a backyard flourishing with life. Rodrigo greeted me with a booming smile. I remembered his warm and kind approach when he taught 20 aspiring farmers last summer. He walked me to the growing food forest and I ask him how Solar came about. 

“Solar is an agroecological cultural center. The project started a year and a half ago. We had been working on similar projects for a while and were looking for a place to produce ourselves. Then a friend put us in touch with the owner of this property, who wanted to use his garden in a different way. It used to be a normal yard that only had grass. Honestly, he didn’t really know what he was getting into, but together we planted a syntropic food forest. We started with three modules, setting up a fully productive system that we could harvest and sell, then those sales paid for the next module, and so on.

“Through this financial movement from consumer growth, we grew the modules. Today we’ve planted 10. On the other side of the property we host courses and events. Our strategy is simple, we grow for the locals: restaurants and families. And little by little we established a bigger production thanks to our direct sales strategy, a classic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model.”

Rodrigo Marques Solar Tepoztlan, syntropic agriculture community center
Rodrigo Marques en Solar Centro Agroecologico, Tepoztlan

For people who don’t know what it is, could you explain what makes syntropic agriculture different?

Syntropic agroforestry systems try to imitate nature and adapt it to agricultural production. We always have two dimensions in dialogue — space and time — so everything we plant needs to be high density and successional. For example we plant different vegetables with short, medium and long cycles in the same areas. In other words, what we create is a system that is resilient and that can maintain constant productivity. Each intervention that we make we improve the conditions of the soil for continuously abundant production. In this system water retention in the soil, soil fertility, carbon sequestration, root density, all these factors are always improving rather than diminishing — which is the opposite of what happens in conventional agriculture. Conventional agriculture transforms forests into deserts, we transform deserts into forests.

“Here at Solar we planted more or less 90 plant species including aromatic and medicinal herbs, vegetables, fruit trees, and biomass production plants in an area of 2,500sqm. Basically this first line of vegetables is planted close to fruiting trees. The first two to three years, we’ll be able to harvest vegetables, however as the fruiting trees grow, eventually we’ll have to stop the vegetable harvesting. This happens because we are following nature’s inner intelligence, she knows when it’s time for vegetables and when it’s time for fruit. So once the forest has grown we will harvest the fruit of the forest and plant in the shade of the trees other crops that need less light than the vegetables we have now. Our plan is to plant coffee once the forest has grown because it’s a shade loving crop.”

At Solar they also host courses and events to spread the syntropic agriculture methodology to the farming community of Mexico. Rodrigo is originally from Brasilia, Brazil, where he first learned about this method of farming.

“In Brazil the method is already consolidated, but not in Mexico. So the first barrier that we had to break was to implement our knowledge to show that it is a financially viable technique. And that it’s easy, that it’s nothing special or complicated. You simply need technical knowledge and a change in perception. This is why we started Solar, so we can show it as a successful case study, proving to visitors that it’s a profitable business. Because for a producer who comes to take a course with us, that is always his first question, can I live from this? Can I raise my children from it? So, Solar has been a bridge, to kickstart a dialogue with Mexico’s rural reality. Now we can really expand the technique and show it to all kinds of people: from rural universities to private ones, to government institutions to private landowners. Many people from different walks of life have already come to check it out.”

Rodrigo and Daniel also manage Tierra Negra, a consultancy that helps projects develop their own agrosyntropic systems. It is through their work for Tierra Negra that I met them both last summer. Although a community project in Ibiza isn’t their typical client, usually Rodrigo and Daniel travel throughout Mexico spreading the agrosyntropic farming method to rural communities.

“We’ve worked with several communities in Guerrero, Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Mexico. When we give courses for people who have a connection with the countryside, who either grew up there or are children of farmers, everything we say makes sense to them. It’s almost as though they intuitively understand that this is a better form of farming, only they didn’t have a word for it. It’s always an emotional moment for them, realizing that these types of techniques are being used today.

Rodrigo Marques Solar Tepoztlan
Rodrigo Marques in Solar Tepoztlan, Mexico

“Ultimately they’re observing their ancestral trajectory. Except now there’s a systematization, which is what we recognize in Ernst’s work. He managed to systematize ancestral agricultural knowledge and also to modernize its use and make it economically viable . Of course ancestral forest systems gave much autonomy and freedom to the communities, but the modern global context is very different today.”

Ernst Gotsch — the founder and leader of syntropic agriculture — was deeply inspired by indigenous people’s ancestral knowledge in land management, and with a background in agricultural science he systemized the process to be able to teach it and share it with the rest of the western world. Originally from Switzerland, in 1982 he decided to settle in Brazil and bought 500ha of degraded land in southern Bahia to test his theories. Today, it’s a flourishing forest with its own microclimate that produces more water than it consumes and sells the world’s highest quality cacao.

“You can truly admire ancestral forest systems just by understanding the Amazon Rainforest, it has so much biodiversity thanks to thousands of years of indigenous peoples’ management. At the core, agrosyntropy has very similar philosophies to indigenous cosmovisions yet Ernst managed to translate them into modern scientific terms eg. mechanisation, species density, spacing, stratification. This made it easier to commercialise the method and have the crops compete with conventional agriculture.  

“In my opinion, Ernst gave us both ecological literacy as well as a new lens to be able to observe nature in its breadth: in development, not as a static photo, rather as an ecosystem in constant development, a movie. Nature is constantly changing, it is transforming all the time, so accompanying that transformation and designing and thinking about that transformation is what makes successional agroforestry so fascinating, so powerful and so adaptable, because you can apply it to any context, any product in any ecosystem and in any soil.”

I ask Rodrigo what is the first advice he gives to communities to appease them that syntropic agriculture is in fact an economically viable method?

“Firstly I tell them to keep working with the crop that they are already selling, to keep that focus. Let’s say I meet a corn producer, if he owns a monocrop plantation he needs to use chemicals to maintain production because monocultures degrade the soil. So every year it is more difficult for him to produce and the corn has more and more diseases. The established discourse here is that they now need to buy more pesticides and fertilizers to maintain production, right? So, my first piece of advice is for them to start learning agroecological literacy, because that has been lost…

“Second we show them that through this method they can also feed their families and achieve food sovereignty. So we ask them what they like to eat and help them study what type of plants grow well next to corn. Essentially to diversify their production. Because if you have a rich ecosystem, then you have rich people, and if you have a poor ecosystem, you have poor people. So the more abundant the space where they are harvesting is, then the less misery they will have.”

We continue talking, and I ask if you’re planting a forest that also produces water, eventually you don’t even need to irrigate it, right?

“Yes, you can even measure the water production by analysing the water retention capacity of the soil as the forest keeps growing. You could eventually prove that thanks to the food forest there is more water entering the ground and being stored in underground aquifers.”

I ask Rodrigo if a person plants a forest, they are giving back to the water cycle as well as becoming independent from state water? He nods.

“And that’s not all you are independent from a lot of other external factors too. For example oil-based fertilisers or potassium fertilizers that are mainly produced in Ukraine and Russia. Conventional agriculture farmers are tied to the globalised economy and its problems too. The war in Ukraine right now is affecting them and the increase in oil prices too. It’s in the industry’s interest for farmers to lose their independence and become dependent on them for simple processes like fertilisation. Essentially, conventional farmers have lost their autonomy and have become completely dependent on a rotten system.”

You might also like: The Chinampas of Xochimilco

This reminds me of one of the lessons from the course in Ibiza, where Rodrigo had mentioned how tlacuaches (Mexican oposums) were not pests in their farm but actually ate the fruit that was rotting, becoming helpers instead of enemies. I mention this to him.

“We see pests as messengers, not problems. In conventional agriculture we’ve made all other beings into enemies. All other living beings are working to make the system more abundant whereas farmers now seem to be the main reason for biodiversity loss. It’s almost as though we’ve been working in a method of agriculture that declares war against life, whereas we are proposing an alternative, an agriculture of peace, a method that reconciles with life, making life an essential element that enhances production. So in this sense a mouse, an opossum, or an insect is not necessarily bad, they are fulfilling their function within a system, and if the system is sick then they will show us this. 

“Each time I learn more about syntropic agriculture in practice, I see that Ernst was absolutely right about this: all living beings are fulfilling a function moved by the internal pleasure of fulfilling that function, every being is thus equipped with the necessary tools to fulfill its function. And its whole life is guided so that this function is fulfilled, right? So a hummingbird with its long beak is able to enter specific flowers and pollinate them, a jaguar is equipped with sharp fangs to do population management of large herbivorous animals. So, what we are observing is that from the ant, to the termite, to the snake, all living beings, even the ones that today are considered pests are fulfilling their life function. So when they visit us they are actually leaving us messages.

“Plagues occur when we are not working in alignment with nature. Nature has highly developed principles and technologies. And if we get out of these technologies, there are imbalances, then those messengers come to say that there is an imbalance, right? So for us there are no pests, there are no diseases. There are only signs of a mistake that we as farmers made. I mean, a forest doesn’t have pests? Have you ever heard of a forest being destroyed by a plague? There is no such reality.

“Yes, there is this reality in the monocultures where pests end up destroying everything. And somehow the system claims that the problem is the pest? But perhaps it’s the system itself, the monocultures, because those insects and animals also live in the forest, yet don’t destroy it. It’s not that they disappeared and only exist in monocultures, they came to the field to fulfill a specific function. It’s nature sending a signal that monocultures should not exist.”

This makes me think of how in western society we seem to have forgotten what our function as humans is within nature. What’s beautiful about agrosyntropic farming is that it returns this function to human beings as well, our role within nature’s harmony. We can create more abundance and more life, just as we can also destroy it. I ask Rodrigo to expand on this topic.

“This is the result of a society that was shaped by industrial growth, right? And how it was losing that connection with the processes of nature. But if we look at ancestral cultures, they had that awareness, they knew that their intervention could be positive. Now under the pressure of the western world they are often losing these practices, but the reality is that we humans have many positive functions eg: micro-climate regulation, multiplication of biodiversity, seed dispersal, forest management, pruning.

“For example, pruning trees is necessary for the forest to renew itself and remain dynamic. If I look at the forest that covers Tepoztlan’s mountains it’s screaming for a prune, but it’s a national forest so I’m not allowed to prune the trees. Of course, this is a great law because it protects the forest from illegal loggers, however these laws are only seeing humans in a negative lens.

“Institutions need to update the way they see humans and our ecosystems and update regulations too. For example they could reward people who are doing positive things, not just ban the ones who are doing bad things. This way we could encourage a positive management of ecosystems in conservation areas.”

Classical conservation methods in the west don’t have a role for humans. They create these artificial boundaries between national parks and areas with human settlement. This is a clear demonstration of the inherent problem with the western worldview: humans are seen as separate from nature. It’s almost as though we’ve become tourists in our own homes. It doesn’t have to be this way, we can change our imposed worldview, learn from ancestral cosmovisions and have positive impacts on nature instead. This is why indigenous peoples represent only 5% of the world population yet protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity: they fulfill their life function. 

I ask Rodrigo what gives him hope in his line of work.

“For me syntropic agriculture provides a socio-economic solution as well as an environmental one. It brings economic opportunity to rural communities that are being pressured into cities. Often they are blindsided when they leave, they sell their land, go to the city, spend a couple of years there until their little money runs out and then they have neither land nor a place to stay in the city. And being poor in a city is much worse than being poor in the countryside. They survived without money and now they need money to survive, making them dependent on the system again. Agrosyntropy gives them their freedom back.”

Syntropic agriculture is empowering communities by giving them an economic alternative that not only feeds their families, but can feed the world too. All while reforesting, replenishing aquifers, regenerating soils and bringing back biodiversity. But ultimately it’s realigning humans with their life function: relearning how to be the good gardeners of the forest.

YouTube player

Isabella Cavalletti is a storyteller and co-founded eco-nnect.


Subscribe to our newsletter

A two minute read that connects you to the week’s key environmental stories.

You may also like