Saturday, February 14, 2009

Day 20 - Conuco Building (agroecology)

By popular demand (thanks guys), I'll feature the conuco garden in my day 20 write-up, thank you for your votes! I think it is appropriate timing as Wednesday, Day 20th of the program actually was the day that we went and dug our conuco bed. The next entry focus is currently intended to be cultivation and harvest, with a little on the banana circle garden we dug and planted.

As you may remember from my Day 13 entry from Sustainable Building, before colonization the Taino indians present here in the islands. There is still a lot of native culture brought with the many conquering peoples, traders, and slaves, but some of the traditional farming and building techniques have been lost. The conuco farming was a way to propagate seeds to maximum yield, very much in-line with the ideas of permaculture. However, much like the bohio, not many people on the islands employ this type of technique.

Reylbeck Mercado Vacca is an apprentice here and a master's student at Gaia University, an accredited alternative university that focuses on student-driven action learning. Rey has been studying the indigenous people and has been tending the Mandala Garden, the first garden on the farm created with mounded beds. Rey was our teacher in this activity.

The conuco is a method of farming that piles large amounts of organic matter in with the soil to create a mound. Over time the organic matter will break down into the soil, enriching it, and reducing the height of the pile. Some methods call for the large sticks to be burned, a technique employed by a lot of early agriculturalists. We decided to use an area where a large amount of bamboo and other branches had been knocked down in the hurricane. This is in close proximity to our bohio structure we built, so it is fitting. Once you pile a large amount of decomposing sticks, grass, and other organic matter (food scraps, whatever you have on hand) you cover it in dirt and let it sit. To catch any of the soil bring run off in the rain, we dug a trench around the outside edge. This large, round pile will now sit for a while to decompose and get ready for planting.

Planting a conuco employs the techniques of gardening on levels, utilizing a small bed to grow many different crops. In the center of the raised bed will be a fruit tree and then out from there will be the larger climbing beans, cassava, and down to the lower layers of ground crops. The tainos would have planted guanábana, yautía, squash, mamey, papaya, pineapple, achiote, sweet potatoes, yams, corn, etc. The idea behind this bed is to plant only indigenous varieties in order to understand more fully how the culture lived and thrived.

St. Croix was once the breadbasket of the Caribbean. The fertile soil brought sugarcane plantations and destructive agricultural practices. By the time the slaves were freed--and later really given their freedom through revolt--so much of the topsoil had already been washed into the sea. Agriculture remains a vocation to be looked down upon and this once productive islands now imports well over 90% of its food.

This weekend is the Agricultural Festival and Food Fair (Ag Fair) and the theme of this year is "Bring back the Breadbasket." I hope that some of the local people are inspired as I am to do something about this sad fact.


  1. omigod. I think it is very cool that you are learning and volunteering in the Virgin Islands.

  2. Hiya. If it were not the dry season on your island, would your instructors have opted to burn the bamboo/woodpile before covering with green/soft vegetable matter, manure and soil? This would add charcoal and wood ashes to the base of your conuco. Was that a Taino practice, or am I bringing indigenous S. American ideas into the mix?

    St croix still has some wonderful agricultural possibilities, if farming were to be culturally acceptable again.

  3. Apologies.. I re-read and you already answered my questions about burning. Keep us informed!

  4. Ha, no reason to apologize, it was probably my incomplete sentence that I rushed through when I was writing the post. I am correcting it now so that it's more clear.

    However, burning the wood is one technology that it is likely that the natives would have employed. It would be a lot faster in the decomposition, along with the wood ashes and charcoal for nutrients. The slash-and-burn method of farming can be very beneficial to replenish depleated soils.

    The Agricultural Fair last weekend was a fun party, but a bit disappointing in terms of how much actual AGRICULTURE was highlighted and how much was just hang out, be seen, and eat johnny cakes. Don't get me wrong, I love the food culture here, but also the point of educating people about agriculture may have missed the mark.

  5. Thank you for your comment Onigiri-man! I look forward to hearing more input from you. One of the things we highlighted at our booth at the fair were the practices popularized by Japanese agriculturalist Masanobu Fukuoka. I'll write more about it later, but the "One-Straw Revolution" and his ideas on natural farming are definitely worth checking out.