25 Jun 5 Lessons from Pre-Columbian Amazonian Farmers
The savannas surrounding the forests of the Amazon region of South America are undoubtedly challenging regions for agriculture. Long rainy seasons followed by prolonged dry periods create an annual cycle of flooding and nutrient leaching followed by drought. Yet in this difficult environment, sustainable agriculture flourished for nearly 300 years. Recently unearthed archaeological evidence of sustainable agricultural practices in pre-Columbian (1200 – 1492 A.D.) Amazonian savannas should have world-wide significance for several reasons:
Ingenuity in the Face of Adversity
To overcome the harsh environment, farmers developed a fire-free, raised-field approach that involved building numerous small agricultural mounds, fertilized with the nutrient rich sediment from flooded basins, separated by channels. This helped to:
- improve soil aeration
- increase soil fertility
- improve drainage in wet seasons
- improve moisture retention in dry seasons
- reduce weeding of fire-dependent plants
- allow for easier harvesting
The channels between the mounds contributed to drainage and irrigation. However they also were ideally suited and located to enable fish and turtle harvesting. This sustainable cropping system combined with a multi-pronged approach to survival allowed large, concentrated populations of people to flourish.
Importance of Local Knowledge
Every culture accumulates the knowledge they need to survive and thrive in a particular location. Even on a smaller scale, local knowledge is vital; every farmer has detailed knowledge of their land and every gardener has their preferred methods. The pre-Columbian farmers of the savannas developed very appropriate methods for their unique environment, methods that are still relevant over 500 years later.
Epidemics and pandemics following European contact reduced Amazonian populations by as much as 90%. When there was no longer the population to carry on these labour intensive methods, a new group of colonial agriculturalists took over. These farmers, unfamiliar with the local history of sustainable agriculture and the different approaches used to farm in the environment, drained the savannas, cultivated drier locations, and began slash-and-burn agricultural practices common in the region today. The knowledge of the decimated pre-Columbian farmers was lost for 500 years.
Invest in the Future
With slash-and-burn agriculture, 40-80 acres (15-30 hectares) of land are needed to feed a single person. The agricultural practices of the colonial farmers may have been appropriate in other environments; unfortunately they were unable to support the large, concentrated populations of the savannas. A willingness to learn approaches and adapt methods from other locations can contribute to the development of sustainable practices locally and globally. Sustainable agriculture has been possible in the Amazon savannas before and likely can be again. Maybe it can even contribute to ideas and approaches outside of the Amazon too.