Course:CONS200/2021/Indigenous Amazonian agroforestry

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Introduction to Indigenous Amazonian Agroforestry

The Amazon

Figure 5. Amazon rainforest, located on the Alto Juruá de nível Federal reserve, showing mature trees and lianas.

The Amazon rainforest spans over 6.7 million square kilometers across Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana[1]. The majority of the Amazon Basin, 60 percent, exists within the borders of Brazil. Home to 10 percent of all plant and animal species on Earth, the Amazon rainforest is an unparalleled biodiversity hot spot[1]. There are 40,000 species of plants, more than 400 mammal species, 1,300 bird varieties, and millions of insects found in the Amazon[1].


Agroforestry is an intensive land management system that benefits from the biological interactions created by the combination of trees, crops, and sometimes livestock [2].

Indigenous peoples of the Amazon


The 400 tribes of the Amazon are incredibly diverse, each with their own territory, culture, and language[3]. In Brazil alone, 195 different languages are spoken among 160 individual Indigenous societies[4]. Today, it is estimated only 1 million Indigenous Amazonian people remain in their ancestral home[3]. Comparatively, prior to the arrival of colonizers in the late 15th century, over 6 million Indigenous people resided in the Amazon[4]. Colonization has led to not only the devastating loss of indigenous lives, but also drastic changes to Indigenous livelihoods. Due to the overexploitation of natural resources in the Amazon, traditional ways of living, such as subsistence agriculture, hunting, fishing and gathering, cannot be supported. This has forced a shift towards wage employment, market-oriented agriculture, and migration to cities among Indigenous people[5].

Common misconceptions

i. Fallacy of the "ecologically noble savage"

The fallacy of the "ecologically noble savage" encompasses the Western view that Indigenous peoples of the Amazon have an “innate conservation ethic"[6]. This view has been criticized for its inaccuracy, offensiveness, and harmful effects on Indigenous ways of life[6]. The Kayapó, Indigenous people who inhabit the savannas in central Brazil, have been widely publicised for their use of apetes, which are anthropogenically formed forest resource islands[6]. The Kayapó developed apetes to adapt to the low nutrient capacity of the soil, cycles of heavy rain and extreme dryness, and presence of numerous ecotones in the savannas that make agriculture difficult[6]. However, the Kayapó’s use of apetes rather than cultivation of the land was championed as an act of conservation by the West[6]. When the Kayapó began receiving royalties for gold and timber harvested from their reserve, there was outrage in the conservation community. This outrage helped fuel the movement in Brazil to reduce Indigenous lands and make legalization of territories more difficult[6]. The fallacy of the "ecologically noble savage" forces the perspective that Indigenous peoples must meet a certain conservationist criteria to have rights to their land rather than be guaranteed their intrinsic rights to land ownership.[6]

ii. Construct of wilderness

The construct of wilderness was molded by the myth that the Americas upon European arrival were pristine wilderness nearly empty of people[7]. This “pristine myth” began with American settler expansion to the West. Although Indigenous peoples of the Americas had built urban centers, roads, and rural settlements, modified vegetation and soil, implemented intensive agriculture, and influenced wildlife populations, by the time American settlers moved West, Indigenous populations had declined by 50%[7]. As American settlers encountered abandoned settlements and inhabited land overtaken by natural forces, they became convinced that the land was “wilderness”[7]. The term “wilderness” was not always used fondly; to colonizers, it often described a “desolate wasteland”[8]. Since its emergence, the idea of wilderness has transformed, becoming a fundamental part of the environmental movement in the West[8]. “Wilderness” is thought of as the last remaining refuge from the claws of civilization[8]. Early conservationists, such as John Muir, romanticized wilderness, believing it to be sacred and in need of protection from humans. Many see the recovering of wilderness as our only hope to save the planet and preserve "nature" [8]. However, a growing number of researchers, conservationists, and activists have pointed out that “wilderness” is merely a construct of human civilization, a preservation of an unnatural state[8]. The removal of Indigenous peoples from their lands to form “uninhabited wilderness”, or national parks and protected areas, solidifies the constructed nature of this concept[8].

iii. Hunter-gatherer perception

The hunter-gatherer perception encompasses both the idea that all Indigenous peoples are hunter-gatherers and the idea that complex hunter-gather societies do not exist. In the 1980s, the prevalent Western academic model of social organization in the Amazon Basin characterized Amazonian societies as having small populations that lacked hierarchies and social stratification[9]. However, archeological research has found that the Amazon supported large population complexes[9]. These large populations were far from “simple” having developed extensive trade networks along rivers, advanced agricultural systems, and a rich material culture[9]. However, the assertion of agriculture as a prerequisite for a complex society is poorly supported by evidence[10]. The dominant model for societal progression posits that societies move from being hunters to being farmers, and the society becomes more complex through this linear progression[10]. Yet complex hunter-gatherer societies do exist and exhibit the same modern cultural and political features as agricultural societies[10].

History of Amazonian agroforestry

History of Indigenous presence in the Amazon

Initial human colonization of the Amazon is thought to have occurred during a time of significant climatic transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene, around 11,000 to 10,000 BP[11]. Excavations of sites such as the Pedra Pintada Cave, which saw human occupation around 10,600 BP, reveal carbonized tree fruits, wood, and faunal remains, supporting the early use of tropical forest foods by Indigenous Amazonian groups[12].  This long history of humans in the Amazon has led to important relationships between ecosystem function and traditional land use practices.  

Swidden cultivation. Prescribed fire. Slash burning.
Figure 1. The use of prescribed fire for swidden cultivation. Note that this photo was taken in Manmao, India, and has been included here to exemplify burning as a tool for land management.

Forest management by Indigenous peoples in the Amazon

Various land management techniques were used by Indigenous groups in the Amazon, and are largely responsible for its complex and highly productive ecosystems.  Some of these techniques include land clearing, cultural burning, the creation of house gardens, cultivation and genetic selection.

i. Land clearing & cultural burning

Traditional land clearing by Indigenous peoples involved the selective removal of trees from previously forested areas, creating regions known as swiddens where useful trees were intentionally retained[9]. The selective removal of some trees decreased competition for resources, resulting in higher success rates for spared trees with important human uses. Clearing is known to have been performed as early as 8,000 BP, according to dating results from semi-polished stone axes[11]. Fire was also used to clear land for swidden cultivation through intentional and controlled burning of selected areas[9][11]. Additionally, fire is an important regeneration mechanism for native Amazonian plants such as babaçu and was intentionally used to stimulate the emergence of these seedlings[11].

ii. House gardens

Figure 2. Patauá (Oenocarpus bataua), a native Amazonian plant, highly valued for its food uses and commonly planted in house gardens.

To create house gardens, Amazonian people transported seedlings of edible and medicinal plants from forests into areas surrounding dwellings [12]. These gardens were known to contain domesticated tree and root crops [12]. This technique has resulted in high concentrations of valuable species in small geographic pockets[12]. Some of these managed species include açaí (Euterpe oleracea Mart.), bacaba (Oenocarpus distichus Mart.), patauá (Oenocarpus bataua), pupunha (Bactris gasipaes Kunth.) and tucumã (Astrocaryum vulgare Mart.) [11]. Over long periods of time, these useful resource patches transformed species distribution in tropical rainforests [11].

Figure 3. Cashews grown in Brazil selected based upon traits such as; color, taste, and fast growth by the Waimiri Atroari people.

iii. Cultivation

There is evidence of cultivation in the Amazon as early as 10,000 BP, which shows that the growth of carbohydrate-rich root and tuber crops were prioritized[9] [12]. The domestication of native fruit trees and staple foods like corn, beans and squash was also practiced. Some examples of known cultivated crops were manioc, sweet potatoes (Ipomea batata), yams (Dioscorea sp.), cultivated pineapple (Ananas comosus), guava (Psidium guajava), abiu (Pouteria caimito), and Brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa) [11].  

iv. Genetic selection

Through the use of cultivation, Amazonian groups selected for different varieties of species with varying traits to grow plants most useful to humans [11]. Evidence for selection is strong in the case of cultivated cashews, which are thought to have been selected for color, size, acidity, and growth rate by the Waimiri Atroari tribe, resulting in a cultivar that fruits only one year following planting [12].  This long-term selection of plant traits by Indigenous peoples is thought to have led to significant genetic improvement of native species with regards to their human uses [11].

Present and future Amazonian agroforestry

Present legacy

Amazonian agroforestry continues to influence the livelihoods, wellbeing, and industry of the populations that depend upon it. Many if not all Indigenous groups living within the Amazon today rely on the legacy of their ancestors in shaping the landscape and honour this legacy by continuing the tradition of land stewardship [13].

Amazonian dark soil, also known as terra preta, was created by Indigenous peoples as a product of agroforestry practices. Its extraordinary fertility is still sustaining agricultural industries adjacent to the Amazon. The Kayapó, for example, employ a variety of agricultural techniques, including soil management methods, which have remained more or less intact to the present day. They include practices of composting, burning, mulching, and the direct addition of fertilizers (in the form of special ashes and organic materials) to forest sites [14]. The chemical consequences of these practices remain in situ within much of the Amazon and are responsible in part for increased site productivity.

Agroforestry allows farmers to cultivate a wide variety of species simultaneously, even with restricted land area. These species complement one another as a healthy ecosystem. The diversity of goods harvested from these forests provides secure income even in volatile markets. Biodiverse agricultural ‘plots’ display increased productivity due to synergistic relations between their natural components. Researchers examining 38 Amazonian farms found that all agroforestry systems outperformed pastures and shifting cultivation in income:cost ratios and farmer satisfaction[15]. In a direct comparison between cacao monocultures and agroforestry systems, the latter had significantly higher revenue and lower cost, as well as smaller differences between conventional and organic outcomes[16].

Figure 4. Deforestation (via logging) in Brazil's Amazon rainforest, a major threat to Amazonian ecosystems.

The practice of house gardens continues in the form of Chakra gardens, agroforestry sites located largely in Ecuador and cultivated by the Kichwa people[17]. The food they produce, including high-quality cacao, is shared throughout the community[17]. Chakra gardens strengthen community connections and promote cultural practices[17]. They also involve participatory governance, where Kichwa and non-Kichwa people work together on food sovereignty-related goals[17].


Amazonian agroforestry is threatened by the accelerating destruction of the Amazon. Since Jair Bolsonaro assumed power in 2019, deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has surged to a 12-year high[18]. Environmental protections have been systematically weakened and over 3000 requests for commercial mining permits on Indigenous land (a constitutionally prohibited practice) are under consideration by the government[19]. The administration’s open and aggressive anti-Indigenous stance has been linked to vast land dispossession and multiple murders[20]. In addition, new leadership for the department overseeing isolated and uncontacted tribes is associated with evangelical missionaries, which has been widely perceived as an attempt to accelerate the destruction of Indigenous cultures via imposition of Christian beliefs[21]. COVID-19 has seen these efforts come to fruition: over 48,000 infections have resulted in at least 957 Indigenous deaths in Brazil, but missionaries have reportedly spread misinformation to convince Indigenous inhabitants of remote settlements not to take the vaccine[22]. The simultaneous destruction of Amazonian ecosystems, Indigenous rights, and Indigenous peoples themselves bodes poorly for the future of agroforestry, since this complex and ancient body of knowledge is embedded in oral tradition, ongoing practices, and the physical reality of the rainforest itself, all of which are under threat of imminent eradication.

Broader agricultural implications

Indigenous self-determination

Indigenous agricultural practices, with specific reference to Amazonian agroforestry, provide a blueprint for sustainable land use within the agricultural sector. Agroforestry initiatives that rely more on local knowledge focus more on food security, natural capital (e.g. soil regeneration), and biodiversity, contributing positively to the environment and providing more stable yields[23]. The harmonious land-based practices and complex understanding of ecosystem functionality cultivated by Indigenous peoples have created food systems that are sustainable in the long term. Researchers have suggested that scaling and exporting principles of stewardship and natural synergy, including their implementation in agricultural sectors internationally, could address intersecting crises faced by the global food system[24].

Advoocates and researchers have pointed out that for Indigenous agroforestry practices to be ethically, effectively, and equitably implemented within non-Indigenous food systems, Indigenous peoples must be centred as agents of change[24]. Scaling up Indigenous agroforestry practices both within the Amazon and beyond demands Indigenous self-determination and larger autonomy with respect to land stewardship practices across the globe.

Importance in the future of agriculture

Land degradation is a serious concern for more than a fifth of cropland and a third of forests, as well as for the 1.5 billion people who directly depend on degraded land[25]. This process is closely linked to agricultural intensification and the associated use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, a practice which also decreases farmer profit[26]. Like intensive agriculture, intensive reforestation efforts typically involve monocultures, which have low ecosystem value[25]. Agroforestry programs tailored to local environments can guide biodiverse reforestation while generating food and providing income[25]. The demonstrated advantages of agroforestry polycultures over full-sun monocultures for cacao and other important crops indicate that a large-scale shift to these cultivation methods would be beneficial for farmer profits and for the Amazon, where crop production is a major driving force behind deforestation and habitat loss[27].

Agroforestry is therefore both ecologically and economically promising. Due to the flexibility of polycultures, agroforestry can meet a wide range of human needs. In Brazil, ArcelorMittal BioFlorestas has engaged in agroforestry on 135,000 hectares degraded by cattle farming since 1957[28]. Eucalyptus trees are harvested and processed into charcoal for steelmaking, where they replace coking coal[28]. 92 animal species have been reintroduced to the area as a result[28]. Compared to the alternative, mining metallurgical coal, this practice enriches land rather than depleting it and provides long-term job opportunities that are not dependent on a finite quantity of extractable resources.


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