Amazon, Ecology
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A Garden In Motion: Indigenous Amazonian Permaculture


The forest is a family of spirits that has worked together since the beginning of the universe. There are hundreds of spirits that work lovingly with human beings. As shamans, we speak with these plant spirits, that are like our mothers. We ask them and they tell us how we can help them adjust their world so that they can grow in the way they like (the cultivation) and they teach us how to work with them as partners so that they can offer their powers to heal the human being.
— Elias Mamallacta

Most Amazonian indigenous peoples are shifting or swidden horticulturalists. Traditionally, they clear a small area (or swidden), cultivate it as a garden for a few years, and then reforest the plot and clearing a new garden.

The garden is always in motion; the garden belongs to cycles that unfold both in time and in space. The garden moves in space as it changes its location through the forest, and it moves in time as one phase in the succession cycles of the forest.

The human gardening cycle is part of the succession cycle of the Amazon rainforest. The rainforest being too wet for forest fires, succession in the absence of humans begins when a large tree falls on its own, suddenly opening part of the forest floor to the sun and fertilizing the earth beneath it with its own biomass and that of the life system that lived on it. The nutrient level in that small place gets a big boost from the new decomposing vegetation. Seedlings and saplings that have survived for years in deep shade spurt up. Seeds germinate as the soil in which they lay warms up. The intense sunlight and heavy rains now hitting the lower levels of the forest roll the biological dice in a new way in that spot. In a hundred years the canopy may recover in that spot, but that section of canopy will be ecologically unique.

The garden mimics the forest in its diversity and density. Four plant layers are recognized: ground level, second level, middle level, and overstory. The ground level consist of crops less than two meters in height such as manioc, beans and maize. The second level consists of taller perennials such as bananas and plantains. The third level is dominated by fruit trees and palms. The fourth level, the overstory, consists of higher growing fruit trees. But in the chagra, the highest level is missing — the canopy of the old-growth or primary forest. This is what immediately distinguishes the garden and the second-growth forest from the old-growth.

The life of the plot is extended through the mixture of annuals (such as maize, sweet potatoes, and sugar cane), semiperennials (such as manioc, yams, taro, pineapples, papaya, plantains and bananas), and perennials (cacao, chonta, achiote, various citrus species, and other tree and shrub crops). The canopy produced by the semiperennials and perennials protects the soil from direct sunlight and semiperennials and perennials eventually take over the plots, as the area is allowed to regenerate to forest.

To the eye of westerners accustomed to uniformity and control and monoculture, the indigenous swidden garden looks “chaotic” and “unkempt” and “disorderly,” but there are ecologically sound reasons for the design. The diversity of plants — separating many plants of the same species, such as naranjilla, which is subject to insect attack when planted together — reduces the risk of insect attack, crop disease and competition for nutrients. The interplanting of crops of different sizes and heights protects the fragile soils from the impact of sun and rain. In important respects, the swidden mimics the rain forest itself, its diversity, density and multi-layered structure. It is part of a shifting cycle of old growth and various stages of secondary forest.

Not only are the chagras, which typically lie at a considerable distance from the house, polycultured, but the area adjacent to each house is also under intensive cultivation. What appears to be random field plantings turns out to have five more or less concentric zones, each with preferred varieties of cultivars and different cultivation strategies. The trees which partially shade the house are carefully selected, and in many cases transplanted, species, including tree calabash (Crescentia cujete) source of gourds for containers, masks, and potting tools, and an amazing array of fruit trees, including inga, avocado, papaya, and zapote. The cultivated land immediately adjacent to the house contains a diverse mixture of useful bushes, including plants for paints and dyes, various types of hot pepper, perennial cotton, and other fiber plants, fish poisons, and of course medicines and psychoactives. Near ground level, thirty or forty small herbs may each be represented by only a plant or two. This diversity is quite ordered to the Indian eye, with careful matchings between plant varieties and microenvironmental conditions. The swidden forms part of an integral system of forest management including also fishing, hunting, gathering and the harvesting of man-made forest fields. Darrell Posey, an anthropologist who studied the Kayapo of Brazil, wrote of their knowledge of plant communities:

The Kayapo are aware that some species develop more vigorously when planted together. They frequently speak of plants that are “good friends” or “good neighbours.”…. The Kayapo characterize such synergistic plant groups in terms of “plant energy”. These groups can include dozens of species and require complex patterns of cultivation. Thus a Kayapo garden is created by carefully combining different “plant energies” just as an artist blends colours to produce a work of art. Indian fields thrive on diversity within the plots… The Kayapo exploit the properties of fields in transition between new and old but also shows how microenvironmental planting zones are created to modify effects of secondary forest growth. Equally significant is the indigenous conceptualisation of plant communities, rather than individual species, as the basis for ecological management.

As Stephen Harrod Buehner writes:

A plant community is far more than the sum of its parts. The addition of every new species…contributes to community dynamics in ways that cannot be predicted from knowledge of the individual species alone. Each is synergistic with all the other species present in the neighborhood…. Many Native American cultures have understood that plants are communal beings, that they grow better together than apart, and that “unkempt” agricultural landscapes produce better results in the long run… Food production over time us always higher than when crops are grown separately, and diseases and infestations are less frequent. Indigenous peoples have long known that the plants support each other, keep each other healthy, and that wild plants around the periphery of the fields keep them vital…. Ecosystems, to be healthy, must be composed of many plants that are working together in such close-knit communal relationships.


Slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon. Photo by Matt Zimmerman via Creative Commons

Clearing the Garden

Indigenous horticulture begins with a forest opening, into which useful species are introduced, and ends with a mature forest of concentrated resources, including game animals. The opening made in the forest enables sunlight to reach the forest floor. The act of clearing the forest is called pichana in Kichwa, a word which literally means “sweeping,” and is the same word used for limpiezas or energetic cleansings performed by a curandero in an Ayahuasca ceremony. In English this small and impermanent forest garden is called a “swidden.”

Most swidden horticulturalists, when clearing the land burn the cut vegetation. The soil in rainforest environments is generally very poor, and the ash provides immediate nutrients for crops, while the slow decomposition of unburned debris release the nutrients fixed in the vegetation and fertilize the soil. Because of this, swidden horticulture is called “slash and burn,” in contrast to plowing, a method of preparing land which is both destructive and ineffective in rainforest environments.

But not all swidden horticulturalists burn the debris. Some, especially in the upland forests of the Upper Amazon, prepare garden spaces through “slash and mulch” rather than the more widely used “slash and burn” method of clearing. There appear to be several factors in this. First, slash-and-mulch clearing appears to be favored in regions that are hilly, where slash-and-burn clearing probably would promote erosion. Second, there is no dry season in the region of the Amazon near the Andes — just wet and more wet — because the westward-moving clouds pile up against the Andes. Slash-and-mulch clearing may be an adaptation to a wet environment that has no distinct dry season. Third, the Upper Amazon is relatively more fertile than most of the Amazon rainforest, because it has some topsoil due to the washdown from the Andes, so the cleared land is immediately usable. The gardener can plant immediately and, by letting the garden be gradually fertilized by the mulch as it breaks down, may be able to prolong the active-garden phase for as long as five years or more.

On the other hand, in blackwater ecosystems, which have the poorest soils in the Amazon. peoples like the Tukano and Makuna of Colombia use slash and burn instead of slash and mulch, and their gardens must be moved every single year.

The undergrowth is cleared, leaving most of the trees standing. After the underbrush has been cut, the garden is laid out under the canopy of larger trees, which protect vulnerable young plants from the intense tropical sun and the heavy rains. Roots, rhizomes, and shoots taken from old gardens are planted. Sometimes rhizomes and cuttings may be planted in an uncleared plot before the bush is cut. After four or five days, when the crop is established and starting to grow, the trees are fallen on top of the crop, and the garden is left to itself. The resulting appearance has been described as “tangled wreckage” and a “forest hit by a tornado.”

The plants soon find their way up between the fallen trunks. Decay of cut vegetable matter is rapid, forming a thick mulch through which the sprouts from the seed and cuttings appear within a week or ten days. Three to four weeks later, after the taro and bananas (plants with large leaves) are growing, most of the remaining trees are felled over the plot, minimizing the time the soil is exposed to the heavy rains. The useful trees are standing — fruit trees, palm trees that are valuable for food, fiber, roof-thatch, or wood, trees with leaves used for tea, as well as many medicinal and dye plants – including, of course, Banisteropsis caapi vines, which were once widely planted through the Amazon. Desirable trees are sometimes pruned. But no effort is made to create brush piles or to clear most of the garden of debris. On hillsides they simply cut the vegetation enough to plant their roots crops into it.

At first sight, a Makuna garden does not seem an impressive feat. It resembles an overgrown clearing in the forest, where the crops struggle against the encroaching wilderness. A typical swidden is rarely bigger than a hectare, with charred tree trunks and branches lying in heaps over the clearing. Recently planted, it looks hopelessly entangled, and presents an almost impassable obstacle to the untrained traveller. But to the Makuna the swidden is an open field. Balancing on stocks and branches, passing over and under felled trunks, they easily find their way. Amongst the trunks, stumps, and heaps of branches, grow a variety of roots and fruit trees of different sizes and heights. (Arnhem 1996: 39-40)


Gathering Yucca, Peru – Photo by Morgan Maher

Managing the Garden

The garden is managed for continual harvest that produces in a continuous cycle. The cycles of fruiting and flowering, rather than calendar months or the sky, act as a guide to when to plant what crop, and when to harvest. Since ripening can be slowed down or speeded up by the amount of sunlight, harvests can be staggered by varying the amount of sunlight plants get. Certain cultivars, like manioc, are immediately replanted from cuttings. Other crops, like some bananas, propagate themselves by shoots from the parent. Yet others, like maize, require new, fertile soils, and are never re-sown after the first harvest. Different varieties have different maturation rates — some manioc varieties maturing in as little as three months, others taking as long as eighteen months – so the result is a “staggered” harvest that ensures that some crops are always ready for harvest.

The majority of important food crops in the Amazon Basin are root crops — that is, any plant in which the edible section develops under the ground, whether it be from a tuber, a rhizome, or an actual root. The important root crops of South America have been under cultivation so long and have been so modified as the result of selective propagation, that they have lost the power to set seed. They can only be maintained by vegetative reproduction and are dependent on humans for their survival. The usual way of reproducing such plants is by planting cuttings from the stem, tuber, or root.

Manioc (Manihot esculenta), also known as cassava, and called yuca in Spanish, mandioca in Portuguese, and lumu in Kichwa, is the most important staple in the Amazonian diet – in fact, it is today a staple in the diets in tropical regions throughout the world. It is a cultigen, and like maize and bananas, depends on human help to propagate it; no wild species are known. Archaeological evidence establishes that the most highly developed form of manioc was already being cultivated 4,000 years ago, and the beginning of manioc domestication is estimated at 7,000 to 9,000 years ago. (Lathrap 1970:57)

At first glance, manioc appears to be monocultured in the garden, because large patches of garden are planted in manioc. In actual fact, dozens of varieties are used, with different attributes — growing rates, ripening times, and size, shape, color, texture, type of tuber yielded in terms of size, shape, color, and prussic acid content. The interplanting of different varieties avoids the spread of diseases and allows the gardeners to select the healthiest individuals to propagate.

Besides food crops such as plantains (cooking bananas), sweet bananas, maize, cacao, naranjilla, tamarind, beans, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, chili pepper, peanut, squash, papaya, onion, avocado, jicama, breadfruit, granadilla, arrowroot, guave, vanilla, and many others, all in multiple varieties, a typical garden contains medicinal plants, hallucinogenic plants, tobacco, cotton, fish poisons, fiber and textile plants, dye plants, gourds, palms for roofing materials, plants for leaf rattles used in shamanic ceremonies. A shaman’s homesite will typically contain many different medicinal plants.

Amazonian Forest Garden -web1 Morgan Maher

In an Amazonian forest garden – Photo by Morgan Maher

The Forest Returns

Eventually, it is time to move the garden. There are three possible factors in this decision. The first factor is that the soil may be depleted, either due to cropping (the plants absorbing all available nutrients) or to leaching by the heavy rains, from which the soil has no protection when the forest cover is removed. The second factor is that weed growth, made possible by the open sunlight, may become so difficult to control that it is actually easier to clear a new space than to continue weeding. The third factor, which involves moving camp, not just the garden, is depletion of hunting territories.

At any rate, the garden is not simply abandoned, but helped in a conscious way to reforest. As Lamista Indian campesino Bencis Vela Rios says, “It is not that the chakra returns to forest just any old way, it is not that way, you have to plant so that the forest can raise itself up. If not, it comes back weaker.”

A garden is abandoned selectively and by stages. When it is time to abandon the garden, it is actually the cultivation of annuals that is being abandoned. After the first years of cropping, the productivity of the lower levels declines as weeds take over. But at that point, the fruit trees are just going into production. The fallow garden can continue to bear produce for many years: sweet potatoes for four to five years, yams and taro for five to six years, papaya and banana for five or more years. Sweet potato or batata, a climbing vine, is also encouraged to expand in fallow gardens because it can spread about the ground without interfering with other crops.

In reforesting, the Amazonian people take advantage of the increased sunlight to introduce plants (including the Ayahuasca vine, Banisteriopsis caapi) that otherwise could not grow under the dense canopy of old-growth forest. Fruit and nut trees are planted to feed birds and monkeys and humans alike, and the birds that are attracted by those fruit trees in turn bring more seeds, usually of something edible, and those seeds have a better chance of growing with more sun and fertilized/semidigested by bird poop. By the time the forest is mature old-growth, it has “wild” fruit growing all over.

The fruit trees have multiple functions; they protect the soil from heavy rains, shelter returning forest species from the intense sunlight, fertilize the soil with their leaf and fruit drop. They offer a nurturing environment for the returning species of the mature forest.

Most old growth forest in the Amazon is rich with fruit trees, nut trees, palms, and many other trees that provide food to humans and animals. Many of these useful trees could not have become established without sunlight when they were young. “This is a landscape that every tree, or most of the trees that you see today, has been selected by the history, by the use of the past,:” says archaeologist Augusto Oyuelo.

Each tree has scores of plants associated with it. Stephen Harrod Buehner calls them “archipelagos.” The intercommunication between the archipelagos shapes and maintains their ecosystem and response to stressors.

One of the most abundant and conspicuous “wild” food and multi-use trees in the Amazon is the chonta or chontaduro palm (Bactris gasipaes), which grows “wild” in old growth rainforest from Central America to Bolivia. . This one species alone can testify to the anthropogenic history of much of “the virgin forest.” The chonta is one of the most multi-use plants in the world. It yields a highly nutritious fruit, oil. hearts of palm and edible palm weevil grubs (Rhynchophorus palmarum), fiber for bags and hammocks, hard and rot-resistant wood for bows, spear, and corner posts for houses, and its spiny trunk demarcates boundaries. Chonta is a cultigen — a species created by humans that does not occur in the wild Like many cultigens (such as maize, manioc, and plantains, all Amazonian staples) it cannot propagate itself. And it cannot grow without sunlight in early stages, so it marks land that was once cleared. Many people know the history of particular chonta groves in the forest — “this is where my grandfather lived.”

Fields take on new life as plants in the natural reforestation sequence begin to appear.. Then as the jungle retakes the plot, it is rich with “wild” foods and medicines for humans and animals alike. Selected plants are transplanted into concentrated spots near trails and campsites to produce “forest fields.” The sides of trails themselves are planting zones.

This create maximum “edge effect” (the edge between two ecosystems is richest in life) which promotes the richness and variety of ecosystems within an area. The Indians take advantage of each of these ecosystems — from cleared, active garden all the way to old-growth climax forest — to plant the plants most suited to those conditions. For example, the areas recently cleared and used for gardening have lot of sunlight on the ground, the oldest forests practically none, and there is every degree of sunlight in between. This makes it possible to cultivate plants with many different sunlight requirements. Many species thrive at the edge of garden clearings (they practice shifting agriculture, successively clearing and reforesting small plots, in a way that is designed to increase biodiversity.

Thus, there is no clear-cut distinction between swidden and fallow, nor between fallow and natural forest. Rather there is a continuum from the swidden dominated by cultivated crops and an old fallow composed entirely of natural vegetation.

The Tukanoans of Colombia call their fallow gardens via’do. The older the via’do. the more fruiting trees are found. Most of these trees do not occur naturally, they are cultivated. In other words, the via’do functions as a food reserve, fallow, yet productive.

People like the Makuna and Uanano, of the barren blackwater ecosystems, cultivate fish populations (which depend on fruit) by never clearing riverbanks and by maintaining fruit trees on the riverbanks to drop fruit in the water for fish to eat.

Old fields also attract wildlife. Ground feeding herbivores -– deer, agoutis, peccaries, monkeys — are attracted to the abundance of low and leafy plant mass, in contrast to the primary forest which has relatively little underbrush because little sunlight reaches the forest floor, and birds and monkeys are attracted to the fruit trees. Birds are important agents of forest regeneration and spread seeds when they defecate. Among the most birds attracted to the fruit trees are the parrots, who in turn play an important role in attracting other animals. In effect, the old fields become large “animal gardens.”

When the Indians come across a site with an unusually high concentration of medicinal plants, especially Ayahuasca vines (Banisteriopsis caapi) they recognize this as a sign that that was once the home of a shaman. Like other widely used plant medicines, Ayahuasca vines growing “wild” in the jungle were all planted by human hands at some point.

Thus, gardens are designed to be productive throughout the forest cycle — not just during the cycle of active cultivation. Human garden cycles are part of the succession cycles of the Amazon rainforest. In the upland forests, the cycle of rotation back to primary forest can be about thirty to forty years. In areas of poorer soil, the rotation back to primary forest can take over one hundred years. (In temperate zones, such as the Pacific Northwest, primary or old-growth forest may take 500 years to fully recover.)

Among the Napo Runa and Pastaza Runa of eastern Ecuador (before land losses to colonists in the 1970s forced them to concentrate in centralized villages) it was common for each family to have gardens throughout the forest. These gardens would be located along the circuit of hunting territories, and each site would have a simple shelter. The family would live at each site, tend the garden and hunt, for several weeks, and then move to the next site, which would be about a day’s journey away. Since the polycultured, permacultured gardens could be left alone for weeks or months, gardens could be maintained in many different sites, with different micro-climates, while the pressure of hunting on the local animal populations was spread out so that a single areas was not overhunted. An entire trek, or purina, could take days or months to complete. The garden sites are called purina tambo — tambo means a waystation or temporary resting place.

The purina tambo has a profound spiritual meaning, Flavio Santi, a Pastaza Runa man, testified:

Purina tambo is our pharmacy. Purina tambo is our supermarket for hunting and fishing, Purina tambo means our school, high school and natural university. Purina tambo for the Kichwa nation means a temple, a natural church…Everything that the purina tambo was for us ancestrally — places for recreation, for teachings of knowledge, for rituals of wisdom, for spreading respect and discipline in the use and management of everything that maintains the ecological balance. The cultural consciousness existed that was the protection of the biodiversity of our ancestral territories. Purina tambo means an indigenous biological reserve, where we learn to love and care for, applying the teachings, customs and knowledges to the children …

Allan R. Holmberg’s 1950 book Nomads of the Long Bow: The Siriono of Eastern Bolivia characterized the Siriono, a people of the Bolivian Amazon, as among “the most culturally backward people of the world,” who were introduced to gardening only in modern times. But Holmberg notes their abundance of wild foods, enumerating many different “wild” palms yielding an edible heart or nuts or fruits. Bows are made from the outer wood of chonta. Thread is made from “wild” cotton, dyed with “wild” plant dyes. Ambaibo trees provide abundant material for string and rope, which are made into bowstrings, hammock strings, hammock ropes, and baby slings. It never occurs to Holmberg to ask if the abundance of these “wild” resources was really an accident.

The Waorani of Ecuador are another people conventionally considered to be foragers, although (like most Amazonian foragers) they cultivate scattered patches of manioc. The forest provides the Waorani with every necessity of life, foraged from the “wild”: dozens of different kinds of fruits, honey, grubs, dyes for decoration, vessel gourds for storage and drinking, various palms providing raw materials for shelter, string, blowgun darts, and so on.

The Nukak of Colombia are categorized as foragers because they do not clear forest for gardens, but Politis says “The Nukak are active agents in the concentration of useful species. When they abandon a residential camp, the site remains dominated by species that are intensively used by the Nukak, principally as food. “In other words, the Nukak leave a resource patch behind them when they abandon and relocate camp.”

So “old growth” forest does not equate to “virgin” forest. Nevertheless, I believe that certain areas of Amazon forest were intentionally left virgin. The Indian communities were all led by shamans, and for the shamans, large untouched areas of old-growth are essential for receiving and replenishing shamanic powers. Virgin forest is recognized and is treasured by the shamans because virgin forest and power places like waterfalls and caves are the wellspring of their power. Indeed, power places where shamans have been trained for generations immemorial can be considered places where spiritual power, rather than food crops, is cultivated. Virgin forest also remains a unique repository of biodiversity.

The key difference between the traditional sustainable horticulture of the indigenous people and the destructive nonsustainable agriculture of the colonists is obscured by classifying both under the label “slash and burn,” a method of clearing used by both groups. Although they both use “slashing and burning” to clear areas for planting, a method far less destructive to the rainforest than plowing the fragile soil would be, indigenous and colonist cultivation methods are different and have vastly different impacts on the rainforest.

The indigenous gardens are small; they are scattered; they are polycultured and hence have no need for chemical pest control; and they are intended to be temporary and ephemeral in the cycles of the forest, and are intentionally reforested as the cycles of active cultivation ends.

The colonists, on the other hand, clear large areas and intend the clearing to be permanent. When the fields no longer produce, or the pastures turn into bogs of mud under the hooves of the cattle, the colonists clear new areas, and deforestation keeps expanding.

And philosophically, the indigenous system of gardening values biodiversity as a positive good, and tries to increase it, rather than to decrease it as “totalitarian agriculture” does.

A Matses Man in the Canopy - Photo by Morgan Maher web1

A Matsés man in the jungle canopy – Photo by Morgan Maher

Humans as Participants in the Rainforest

The modern Amazon rainforest, as an ecosystem and a patchwork of micro-ecosystems, dates only back to the last Ice Age. During the Ice Age, the Amazon Basin was much dryer, mostly savanna, little of the diverse forest we know today. How the Amazon recovered from the Ice Age to so quickly become the greatest center of biodiversity on Earth is a question that has not been solved. One theory involves pockets of biodiversity called refugios, that never dried up, that apparently served as genetic reservoirs for the continent; humans likely would have played a role in redistributing and spreading species from the refugios.

One thing that is known: human inhabitation of South America predates the end of the Ice Age. Archaeologists have found skeletons in South America as old as 14,700 years old. This means that human beings have very probably lived in the Amazon rainforest since before there was a rainforest; they participated in some way in its rebirth, like every other rainforest species, and may have been one of the most influential species of the forest.

Thus, the Amazon rainforest is a “cultivated forest,” an ecosystem which since the Ice Age has been shaped by human participation and which would be very different without it. These ways were so effective that when the Europeans saw this rainforest that had been cultivated for thousand of years, they considered it as “virgin forest,” “untouched by the hand of man.” That is a testimony to the sophistication of their traditional eco-human sciences.

The natural forest can be seen as a vast, overgrown garden. Walking along a forest trail or following a stream, the Makuna name and point to different sites, which to the untrained eye are indistinguishable from the surrounding forest, but to them are known to be old house sites, abandoned fields, and still used fallows. The forest is not as wild and virgin as it appears. It is quite literally a home and a garden, full of memories and replete with human history; it bears the signs of remembered dead, traces of the lives and works of named and known relatives. The Makuna notion of the forest as “the garden of the ancestors” is quite literally true. (Arnhem 1996:39)

“I basically think it’s all human created,” Charles Clement, a botanist at the Brazilian National Institute for Amazon Research, says of the Amazon rainforest. Archaeologist William Balée uses the term “artifactual forests.” Archaeologist Clark Erickson says that the tropical forests of South America are among the finest works of living art on the planet. (Dokoupil n.d.)

Indeed, the Amazon rainforest, gardened nearly since its post-Ice Age beginnings, became in only ten millennia the most biodiverse region on Earth. It also became one of the the most linguistically diverse region on Earth, exceeded only by New Guinea and the entire continent of North America (and extreme linguistic diversity is a sign of extreme willingness in the human community to live and let live with regard to other cultures). The rainforest flowers into extremely diverse styles of cultural as well as biological adaptation.

But the Amazon jungle is wild and biodiverse because the humans who have lived in it value the quality and spirit of wildness. They value the raw power of nature. They want to keep this wild spirit intact in the gardens. And only people who value the underlying spirit of wildness have ever been able to cultivate the rainforest successfully. That spirit of wild diversity is the fount of spiritual energy, especially for shamans. Power places, places of untrammeled spiritual power, are valued and protected as wellsprings of life and spiritual guidance.

As a Pastaza Runa elder said to me: “The colonists seek to leave money for their children. The indigenous people seek to leave forest for their children.”

Into the deep green - photo Morgan Maher web1

Into the deep green – Photo Morgan Maher

Chagra and Sacha

In the book Crianza del Monte en Los Quechua-Lamas, about the Lamas or Llakwash Indians near Tarapoto, Peru, Grimaldo Rengifo Vasquez writes (p 167):

As doña Cerfina says, “We cultivate in the forest, you don’t even notice our gardens.” The chacra (garden) is thus a space of nurturance (crianza) that the human community realizes within the forest. Forest and garden is a unity of nurturance, the regeneration of one depends upon the other and vice versa.


Sacha and chagra are two complementary, interpenetrating domains. Sacha means “forest” in Kichwa, but it also means the wild quality of the forest, the spirit of wildness. Chagra is the domain of active human cultivation, the cleared forest. (The third domain is yaku, the river world.) Any plant or animal of the forest that grows “wild,” under the forest canopy, can be called sacha, even if it was originally planted or encouraged by humans – in contrast to garden plants such as manioc, that require humans to plant and tend them.


The Indians speak of crianza of both the garden domain and the wild domain. Crianza means “raising” in the sense that one raises a child: rearing, bringing up, educating, nurturing, feeding –- all to prepare the child for a healthy independent mature life. Similarly, Amazonian horticultural practices are intended to nurture and increase the life-force of the total ecosystem…


In the Lamista vision of the world, the communities of humans and nature are not the only communities. The local microcosmos is inhabited by three collectivities: the community of runas or humans, the community of the deities (also called spirits, animas, supay) and the natural community called monte or sacha. These communities live in symbiosis with one another, in an atmosphere of respect and affection. The natural community is composed of trees, wild animals, streams and springs, and it is appreciated as being nurtured by the deities as if the monte were the community or home (llakta) of the spirits. Each tree, in the view of a Lamista community member, is seen as being under the care and nurturance of a deity, because the forest is considered to be the home of the supay or spirits. This deity is also called the “mama” or spirit of the tree, and is in charge of protecting it and sheltering it.

Into the green and blue - Photo by Morgan Maher

Into the green and blue – Photo by Morgan Maher


Amazonian Permaculture

Modern peoples have begun to rediscover the same principles of cultivation that indigenous people use, and have named it “permaculture.” Amazonian traditional horticulture offers a living (though threatened) model of permaculture, adapted to the conditions of the tropical rain forest, and demonstrates that permaculture not only works, but can enhance biodiversity and nurtures cultural diversity.

One description of the philosophy of permaculture is “working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.” ( )

“In permaculture, little wheels or cycles of energy are set up, and the system virtually keeps itself going! Essentially, it’s a living clockwork that should never run down. at least as long as the sun shines and the earth revolves.” – Cathe Fish (

The principles of permaculture listed below are all evident in Amazonian traditional horticulture:

Permaculture design seeks harmonious integration of landscape and people to provide food, shelter, energy and other material or non-material needs in a sustainable way.

Diversity: Aims to integrate a variety of beneficial species of food, plants and animals into design.This builds a stable interactive polycultural system which provides for human needs and also for the needs of other species.

Edge Effect: In general, there is more energy and more diversity of life on the edge where two types of natural systems overlap. On these borders one can access the resources of both sides. Using the edge effect, and other natural patterns that you observe, creates the best effect.

Energy Planning: Placing the elements of your design in such a way as to minimize the use of energy (including fossil fuels and human labor). Utilizing the energy and resources that you have, first on-site and then from outside the system, as effectively as possible.

Energy Cycling: In a natural system there is no waste or pollution. The output from one natural process becomes the resource for another. Recycle and reuse all of resources as many times as possible.

Scale: Creating human-scale systems. Choose simple, appropriate technologies for use in designs. Only create systems that are manageable. Start small and take achievable steps towards an ideal goal.

Biological Resources: Use natural methods and processes to achieve tasks. Find things in nature (plants, animals, microbes) that are supportive of the system design and minimize outside energy input.

Multiple Elements: Support each vital need and essential function in more than one way, so that a temporary failure in one element will not stop the functioning of others. Also, recognize that there is almost always more than one way to achieve any task.

Multiple Functions: Most things can be used in a variety of ways and for a variety of functions. One rule of thumb in Permaculture is to try to design three uses for every element of the system. This can save space, time and complication in any particular project.

Natural Succession: Work with nature and the processes of natural systems. Anticipate future developments through research and observation when necessary.

Relative Location: Place every element of your design in relationship to others so that they benefit from each other.

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“Permaculture is a bridge between traditional cultures and emergent earth-tuned cultures.” – Michael Pilarski, Restoration Forestry. Kivaki Press, Durango, CO. 1994. p. 450.

In the traditional life, the human communities converse with and care for nature, they sing to it, they share food and drinks with it. In reciprocity, the protector spirits accompany them so that the conversation is fluid… The health of nature is inseparable from the health of the spirits. (PRATEC nd)

Permaculture is a new word for an ancient indigenous way of life. It is the ethic of reciprocity, cooperation, mutual support and the gift economy extended into the natural world. It is the way of “all my relations,” kinship with the entire system of life. It is waiting to be rediscovered by the modern world.


Featured Image, by Laura Stevens: Cocona (a fruit resembling lemon and tomato) growing near a small hunting camp, deep in the Peruvian jungle.

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