In the future, expanding the Amazon’s land management systems of the past

Learnings from how Indigenous communities have sustainably managed the biome for centuries

A cacao farm in the Peruvian Amazon incorporates agroforestry practices. Marlon del Aguila Guerrero, CIFOR
5 October 2021
5 October 2021

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Amazonian peoples are believed to have numbered some 10 million, domesticating and cultivating native plants to feed themselves throughout the biome. Their lengthy coexistence with the forest gave rise to a rich diversity of languages, artistic expression, mythologies and cosmologies, said Márcio Augusto Freitas Meira, an anthropologist with the Goeldi Museum, at a recent digital conference on Amazonia held last month by the Global Landscapes Forum.

“The Amazon is a center for the domestication of plants, yucca, cacao, peanuts,” said Eduardo Goes Neves, professor of archeology at the University of Sao Paulo, in the same discussion. “These management practices, the modification of nature and landscape, were consolidated through time.”

This session, “Agroecology, Archeology and Anthropology: Integrating past and present to enable sustainable land uses in the Amazon of the future,” examined the history of the Amazon biome through a lens from which it’s rarely viewed: that being, as a landscape managed by humans rather than an untouched wilderness. From across different academic and scientific backgrounds, experts illustrated how Amazonian Indigenous and traditional communities have a long history of viewing their landscape as a deeply interconnected system, in which their human use of the biome and the biome’s health are balanced and intertwined.

“The relationship of ancient peoples with the Amazon shows a transformation, with agricultural production through agroecological strategies, very old strategies that led to creating the Amazon we now know,” said Neves.

In today’s terms, the practices that the Amazon’s Indigenous peoples employed – which some tribes called the “management of the world” – serve as a perfect example of how food production can and should be blended with biodiversity conservation. Globally, as increasing amounts of land are converted to agriculture, food production is often seen as the main driver of biodiversity loss.

Speakers, however, stressed that it is the means of food production rather than production itself that is the problem. As seen in the Amazon, through combining various crops, animals and trees with different spatial and seasonal arrangements, land-users – ancient tribes and modern farmers both – design their farms to mimic natural processes. In turn, this leads to more productive crops and animals and healthier ecosystems; indeed, Neves noted historic documentation of the rich black color of Amazonian soil in its Indigenous territories, signaling its fertility. This Terra Preta de Indio, “Indian Black Earth,” still exists in parts of the biome that are still as healthy as they have been in the past.

Forest is regenerated through agroecological practices in the Nueva Ahuaypa Indigenous community. Juan Carlos Huayllapuma, CIFOR
Forest is regenerated through agroecological practices in the Nueva Ahuaypa Indigenous community. Juan Carlos Huayllapuma, CIFOR

The purpose of the session was twofold: to show how ancient agroecological practices should be expanded and reinstated to conserve the Amazon, and, more broadly, to provide examples from the Amazon of why agricultural landscapes should be included in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which will serve as the leading document for worldwide biodiversity conservation in the next decade. Currently, the draft framework largely excludes managed landscapes, such as those used for food and livestock, from areas prioritized for biodiversity efforts.

“[Indigenous practices in the Amazon] should be considered as relevant in the different  international conventions associated with the UN, such as the Convention on Biodiversity, the Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Food Security,” said Tatiana de Sa, vice president of the Brazilian Association of Agroecology (ABA) and a researcher at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA).

Currently about one-fifth of the Amazon is in Indigenous territories, with more informally under Indigenous management, and numerous studies have shown that these areas are the best preserved and most biodiverse. In many cases, these areas have always been used for food production, and in today’s context, often link to markets to provide their Indigenous managers with livelihoods as well.

“It’s an economic strategy, because they have food for their own consumption and for sale all year long, and an ecological strategy because, by diversifying, you combine planting, harvesting, and land management within a local agri-system,” said ABA vice president Romier da Paixao Sousa. Importantly, he noted, these lands are used to cultivate exportable products, like açai, coffee and cacao, that can form part of this diversification process when integrated correctly.

However, speakers also stressed that these sustainable land-use practices are unlikely to continue if a land’s managers lack secure rights. Francileia Paula de Castro, a member of ABA’s Traditional Peoples, Ancestries and Ethnicities Working Group, gave examples of the many ways Quilombola communities practice methods such as agroforestry and mixed farming. Quilombolas, who are descendants from African slaves, are some of the most marginalized and vulnerable people living in the Amazon, with their lands and lives often under threat from land-grabbers and the expansion of extractive industry.

A Quilombola woman farms her land near Canguçu, Brazil. Alina Souza, Palácio Piratini
A Quilombola woman farms her land near Canguçu, Brazil. Alina Souza, Palácio Piratini

“The rational use of the lands by these people integrates ways of living for us,” said de Castro. “It represents this interrelation between humankind and nature, where we use a lot of different management practices in order to ensure the production of food, the preservation of local biodiversity and sustainable results throughout time.”

ABA vice president Romier da Paixao Sousa extrapolated on the issue of rights, noting that they “must also expand to include areas of common use, such as forests, lakes and rivers. And this requires a different way of thinking about management, where current collective practices are valorized and incentivized.”

And it is exactly this broadening of thinking about the intersection of land management, rights and biodiversity conservation that should be channeled upward into all levels of policy. Scientific and ancestral knowledge should be bridged, Sousa said, “to create a real ecology of knowledge,” that can be integrated into policymaking processes.

One example cited was Brazil’s 2008 National Program for Environmental Management in Indigenous Lands (PNGATI), which was constructed in collaboration with Indigenous leaders to institutionalize strategies to secure protection and support the sustainability and well-being of Indigenous peoples and their lands. 

Part of these policies and shifts in systems should focus on reconstructing local and regional agri-food systems and value chains, to not only help boost nutrition and dietary diversity among rural populations, said Sousa, but also to help increase their benefits. There’s an obvious need for more investment into Indigenous communities, to support their creation of small- to medium-sized enterprises, in turn promoting equality and inclusion in the biome’s development, he said.

In international policy, in agreements and strategies such as the Post-2020 Framework, solidifying managed and agricultural landscapes as priority areas for biodiversity will further serve to tie all the ends together – promoting sustainable agroecological practices that conserve biodiversity and the overall health of a landscape, giving further reason to secure the rights for communities to continue caring for their land in this fashion.

“We need to think about policies that can bring this perspective forward,” said Sousa, “policies that have the capacity to support social processes that already exist in the Amazon, in the sense of preserving the environment – policies with enough flexibility to permit the diversity and durability of sustainable systems.”

“Without an agrarian reform that is truly Amazonian,” he continued, “we will not advance in the maintenance of the biome.”

“There is no future for the Amazon if we separate natural history from the history of the peoples who have inhabited this very important region for more than 12,000 years,” said Neves.


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