This story was originally written this spring, for consideration for our just-released travel issue. Since then, Puerto Rico—and Govardhan Gardens, depicted below—has suffered severe devastation at the hands of Hurricane Maria. To help them continue their important work and begin the work of rebuilding, please donate to their GoFundMe campaign here.
The Cavendish banana—the bright yellow thick-skinned commercial varietal eaten the world over—is under threat from the same fungus, Panama disease, that wiped out its top banana predecessor, the Gros Michel in the 1950s. The Cavendish, developed in England of all places, came to fame because it was resistant to the Panama disease that wiped out the reputedly better-tasting Gros Michel, but the disease has evolved to be fatal to the Cavendish as well. And as the fungus creeps from one banana-producing region to another, there is as yet no varietal with the sturdiness, convenience and flavor that can take its place.
This situation points out just how important genetic diversity is to our food supply. Overdependence on one species ushered in the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s, for example, when that varietal succumbed to late blight. Americans may not be as dependent on the banana as the Irish on the spud, but according to reports, the U.S. per capita consumption of fresh bananas is somewhere between 22 and 25 lbs. a year. That’s a lot of bananas.
One man in Puerto Rico, Sadhu Govardhan, an Austrian by way of India, has spent years, not looking for America’s Next Top Banana, but amassing a vast collection of tropical fruit plants living together in relatively self-sustaining harmony that illustrates biodiversity’s importance and its potential for good. His Govardhan Gardens is 10 acres of painstakingly cleared and planted acres of mountaintop with 450 varieties of tropical fruit and nut plants—200 plus which are producing fruit.
I drive up to the farm which is between Mayagüez and Maricao, about 30 minutes from the western coast, up a series of hairpin turns on narrow country roads lined with stray dogs, exuberant bougainvillea, and wood and cement houses in a dizzying mash-up of architectural styles clinging defiantly and somewhat precariously to the side of the mountain.
My reward for the white-knuckle journey is an oasis of quiet—the natural kind of quiet, where lizards rustle and birds twitter and insects hum in a tranquil, soporific way. There are bamboo and fruit trees everywhere, but it looks like everything just sprang up of its own accord. I was expecting a botanical garden, a tree nursery, perhaps, or an orchard. Instead, I just see a lot of trees that I can’t identify and no fruit.
Sadhu, with his close-shaved head and simple clothing retains some air of the Eastern monk and teacher about him. He explains this unique place that isn’t really a farm, but an ecosphere where he is trying to do his part in rescuing tropical agriculture from itself. And he has a lot to say about modern agriculture and the forces that control it.
“The Caribbean islands, since they were colonial islands, there was no strong food sovereignty or agricultural tradition,” he says. “I am one of the few tropical crop specialists in the Caribbean and probably the only one who works with all kinds of crops: grains, bamboo, herbs, fruits, nuts, vegetables. It started because when I was 19 I went to India. For about 15 years my primary study was Sanskrit, but I became interested in the level of self-sufficiency in remote villages and the simplicity in finding solutions to agricultural challenges.”
He began to study tropical fruits, their nature and uses, systematically. He found that there are thousands, perhaps countless. This led him to want to establish a collection of tropical fruits from around the world. “I evaluated 1000s of species and tried to select the most important with the most diversified fruit,” he says. “I have introduced 150 new fruits to the island; that was part of my plan. I hope to improve the fruit landscape.”
It wasn’t easy; when he purchased the land 17 years ago, it was covered in vines, debris, attempts at agriculture and neglect. He cleared perhaps an acre a year and then slowly introduced his seeds and seedlings into the improved environment, only after careful thought as to the optimum location for each plant and its relationship to those around them.
“I wanted to see what a small scale farmer can do for himself, how far he can go and set an example of sustainability,” he says. Because he travels a great deal for his work as a consultant on agricultural projects, “…I have to neglect part of my own work. But the goal is that this can go on by itself indefinitely. They (the plants) protect each other. Pests and diseases are drawn to monoculture. Nature’s health can be measured by its diversity; it is a natural protective agent for society. I have practically no problem with pests or disease.”
Sadhu estimates the plants produce about 75,000 single fruits of 200 different species annually, but he says the potential is for 250,000 fruits from his 10 acres. He has hopes that some of the fruits might catch on commercially or be exploited for their as-yet untapped health benefits. His mission is to break the cycle of monoculture and of consumers’ alienation from their food sources.
When I asked about introducing potentially invasive species, he pointed out that species have been introduced multiple times in Puerto Rico’s history since European settlement. “I have a clear and decisive take,” he says. “In terms of fruits, tropical bamboo and vegetables, all introductions are good, except plant material affected by disease. Viruses are not passed by seeds. The only problem is irresponsible monoculture which sooner or later becomes susceptible to pests and disease.”
Which brings us back to the Cavendish. Does Govardhan Gardens hold a replacement banana or a cure for Panama disease? Perhaps not. But it asks a completely different set of questions. Is there a model for agriculture in which healthy diversity reduces vulnerability and susceptibility and where sustainable practices guarantee strength? Where the next Panama disease or an Irish potato famine can’t happen? And it asks, why in the world, with all the delicious and useful banana varieties out there, are we letting Big Ag set up one banana to rule them all?
Govardhan Gardens is located in the area of Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. Visits are by appointment only and, like the Great Pumpkin, Sadhu limits visits to “the most sincere.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The website, where you can read more about the history and mission of Govardhan Gardens and purchase his book is http://organicfarm.net/default.htm