Native vs Exotic Species

Native and Exotic Species in Agroforestry and Food Forests

In the world of agroforestry and environmental regeneration, the debate between the use of indigenous and exotic species has long stirred passionate discourse. Proponents of native species argue that these plants are best suited to local ecosystems, fostering biodiversity and resilience. Meanwhile, advocates for the inclusion of exotic species highlight their potential to enhance growth rates, improve soil health, create better conditions for the indigenous species and also increase food production.

The Biggest Mini Forest approach aims to create biodiverse, high-density systems that can be implemented not only in rural areas but also in urban settings. Our Mini Forests aim to recreate the natural composition of larger ecosystems while providing tangible benefits to human communities. Within this context, an intriguing question emerges: can exotic species coexist with indigenous plants in a way that enhances the ecosystems we are creating, or does this approach challenge the very essence of nature conservation?

The Miyawaki Method: A Purist’s Approach

Indigenous species forest - oak forest

Oak tree in a native forest.

Renowned globally for its emphasis on creating dense, native forests, the Miyawaki Method stands as a paragon of purist ecological restoration. Developed by Japanese botanist Dr. Akira Miyawaki, this method prioritizes indigenous species, aiming to recreate the natural composition of local forests. The success of this approach is undeniable, with numerous urban and rural areas worldwide transformed into lush, biodiverse habitats.

By focusing exclusively on native plants, the Miyawaki Method fosters environments that are inherently suited to local climatic conditions and wildlife, ensuring a robust and resilient ecosystem. It’s a philosophy deeply rooted in the conviction that nature, when left to its own devices, knows best.

Syntropic Agriculture: The Inclusive Approach

bunch of bananas hanging on a banana tree

Banana trees are considered exotic species in many parts of the world. However, syntropic systems use them a lot.

On the other side of the spectrum lies Syntropic Agriculture, a holistic approach that embraces both indigenous and exotic species. Originating from the innovative work developed in Brazil by Ernst Götsch, a Swiss  farmer and scientist, Syntropic Agriculture is a system where plants, animals, and humans coexist harmoniously, promoting biodiversity, soil health, and sustainable food production.

In a Syntropic system, exotic species are not mere intruders but valued contributors. These plants can play crucial roles, such as fixing nitrogen, providing shade, or acting as pioneer species that prepare the soil for slower-growing and more delicate native species. The integration of some specific exotic species can accelerate the regeneration process, enhancing the overall productivity and resilience of the ecosystem.

Mini Food Forests: Bridging Two Worlds

At the Biggest Mini Forest, we’ve embarked on a mission to marry some principles of both the Miyawaki Method and Syntropic Agriculture. Our Mini Food Forests are designed to create fast thriving ecosystems that not only restore nature but also provide tangible benefits for human communities through food production.

Incorporating carefully selected exotic species into our Mini Food Forests offers unique advantages. For instance, fast-growing exotic trees can provide immediate canopy cover, protecting more delicate indigenous plants from harsh weather conditions. Additionally, some exotic species can offer food and medicinal benefits that native species might not provide, contributing to the food sovereignty and health of local communities.

The Thought Behind Our Approach

The decision to use exotic species is not taken lightly. It stems from a deep understanding of local ecosystems and a commitment to sustainable practices. Here are key reasons behind this choice:

1. Accelerated Growth and Protection: Exotic pioneer species can quickly establish a canopy, creating a microclimate that benefits slower-growing native plants. The fast-growing species that can be heavily pruned also contribute to continually adding organic material to the soil, thereby improving the soil and the overall health of the system. These synergies accelerate the forest’s development and increase its resilience. 

2. Diverse Ecosystem Services: Exotic species can fulfill specific ecological roles, such as nitrogen fixation or acting as nurse plants, which are thought to aid the growth of other species by providing relatively benign conditions below their canopy. These functions enhance soil fertility and structure, promoting overall forest health.

3. Nutritional Benefits: Integrating exotic food-producing plants can address local food security issues, providing diverse and nutritious options for communities. This aligns with our broader mission of fostering food sovereignty.

4. Adaptation to Climate Change: According to the Syntropic approach, as global climate shift and soil degradation worsens, certain exotic species may be better suited to the new conditions, thereby ensuring the forest’s longevity and productivity. These exotic species can often accelerate the regeneration process, restoring the conditions needed for indigenous species to thrive.

dead holm oak in the Algarve

Dead holm oak in the Algarve - one of the most drought resistant species of oaks that could not tolerate anymore  the soil degradation and the extreme drought conditions.

Our Ethical approach

While the inclusion of exotic species offers numerous benefits, it’s essential to navigate this approach with caution. We prioritize species that have been proven to coexist harmoniously with native plants and avoid those known to become invasive and out of control. 

Being so, we avoid species that cannot be removed from the system, species that can easily become invasive through root suckers and through fast seed dispersal.

We advise people to avoid using unknown species before understanding their behavior and how to approach them in order to be beneficial to the ecosystem.

Once in use, the exotic species require our ongoing monitoring and adaptive management to ensure that their introduction does not disrupt local ecosystems.

A Vision for the Future

In embracing a blend of the Miyawaki Method and Syntropic Agriculture, the Biggest Mini Forest aims to create a model of ecological restoration that is both purist and pragmatic. By leveraging the strengths of indigenous and exotic species, we envision Mini Food Forests as vibrant, resilient, and productive landscapes that serve both nature and humanity.

As we continue this journey, we invite communities around the world to join us in redefining what it means to restore and sustain our environment. Together, we can cultivate a future where every forest, no matter how mini, makes a mighty impact.