Cultivating People and Plants

The Amazon Agrobiodiversity In Question

Walking through the native farms and backyards in the Rio Negro region, Amazonas, there was no way I could not be impressed by the diversity of plants cultivated there. Walking through these agricultural spaces was a way for me to perceive a biodiverse world in a full production of differences.

To a less attentive eye, the set of colours, shapes and scents that composed those local farming systems in the middle of the central Amazon would seem like a disorganized heap of weeds and plants amidst growing pieces of sticks and trees. In fact, contradicting an inattentive glance, there was an immense collection of species and varieties of plants, a veritable repository of agrobiodiversity. It was mid 2007, and I was engaged in research on traditional knowledge about biodiversity to understand how the people of the Baré, Tukano and Piratapuia ethnic groups related to plants and managed the landscape, creating amazings agrobiodiverse gardens.

The list of plants was enormous; I could name about a hundred cultivated species, among trees, shrubs, herbs and palm trees like tucumã (Astrocaryum aculeatum), pupunha (Bactris gasipaes), bacaba (Oenocarpus bacaba) and açai (Euterpe sp.). This wealth of species in the agricultural systems, added to those collected in the forest, make up the range of plants used by the indigenous communities where I studied. Still this is only a small portion of the mega diversity with which the indigenous peoples of the Amazon have been in contact for centuries. When we look at the biodiversity in Amazon agricultural systems we must not lose sight of the microcosm. That is, the difference produced within varieties — we are here dealing with an immense collection of cultivated varieties. Only in Rio Negro could I register over 70 varieties of manioc, 12 bananas, different forms of yams, sweet potatoes, and peppers.

Much of this knowledge has been studied in recent years by anthropologists and ethnobotanists evidencing practices and knowledge and experimentation by indigenous peoples in the management of ecosystems. Prominent figures such as Carl Sauer[1] and Claude Levi-Strauss[2] mapped this ethnobotanical complex, pointing out the various uses of wild and cultivated plants in tropical South America. In these texts, we can observe that the multiplicity of plants is related to various uses, such as rituals, medicines, food, beverages, fibers, construction, ornaments, and artifacts. It is worth noting the intense use of entheogenic plants such as ayahuasca or caapi, tobaco and yekoana in shamanic rituals.

We are trying to understand how these indigenous communities have maintained the diversity of plants and processes of forest management and farming systems from generation to generation. We want to understand how this management contributes to a profound change in the ecological structure of much of the Amazon forest.

As we adjust our lenses to better see the ethnographical and historical processes between people and plants in the Amazon, we may be dazzled by the fact that the Amazon biome and its heterogeneous ecosystems has been profoundly altered by human populations that have lived there for the last several thousand years. A resurgent intervention, respectful to the regeneration cycles of the landscape. According to recent research, increasing evidence suggests that the modern floristic composition and structure of Amazonian forests have been influenced by past human activity, primarily agriculture. Indigenous peoples and riverines transformed forests in many ways, through plant cultivation (preceded by cutting and burning), seed dispersal and propagation, and in situ tending of useful organisms, such as cultivated plants[3].

The interest in plants, and the use of them in the agricultural systems, contributes to modify the biology of some species and the structure of the landscape. As an example, we have the pupunha, managed for centuries to produce larger fruits, or manioc cultivated in several varieties to adapt to micro-ecosystems and for various cultural uses. Five centuries after the demographic collapse of Amerindian populations the domestication of plants persists in Amazonian forests, frequently associated with fertile anthropogenic soils (the terra preta de índio) and pre-Columbian mounds in a sophisticated system of “Amerindian forest engineering” that began more than six thousand years ago[4].

This complex system that interweaves humans and their plants has a clear history of co-evolution, but at the same time ethnocide and ecocide that unfortunately persist. This is the case, for example, in the communities of Rio Negro where I’ve studied that underwent profound transformations in the face of colonization and the market. The botanist Charles Clement argued that since 1492 there has been a considerable decline in plant genetic resources. It is estimated that indigenous peoples cultivated and managed more than 130 species — and that such loss is associated with the Amerindian population decline over decades of contact and European colonization. According to Clement, Amazonian crop genetic erosion probably reflects an order of magnitude loss and the losses continue today.

Amerindian agricultural systems are now considered by most academics and the public sector backward as primitive and archaic. There are many projects being developed to “modernize” them. Such projects disregard a whole multiplicity of stories of people’s relations with plants and the environment and a whole set of associated knowledges. Indigenous knowledge rooted in worldviews, practices, experiments, and innovations that often do not fit the market perspective and productive development. Such knowledge must be recognized and treated as sui generis, as components of singular ways of living. May they be respected and valued.

[1] Carl Sauer, Cultivated Plants of South and Central America, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143. 6: 487–543.,1950

[2] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Use of Wild Plants in Tropical South America, Economic Botany 6, no. 3: 252–270, 1952

[3] See in Levis, C. and collaborators, Persistent effects of pre-Columbian plant domestication on Amazonian forest composition, Science 355, 925–931, 2017.

[4] Charles Clement and collaborators, The domestication of Amazonia before European conquest, Proc. Biol Sci. 282(1812), 2015. Charles Clement, 1492 and the loss of amazonian crop genetic resources. I. The relation between domestication and human population decline, Economic Botany, 53: 188, 1999.

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