A study published in 2018 has discovered that most of the edible plants in the Amazon rainforest were deliberately planted some 4,500 years ago.
As a result, the Amazon is now an abundant food forest and provides a key model for regenerative, resilient farming using food forests (agroforestry) and permaculture principles. The discovery provides one of very few long-term insights into the effects of such approaches, and casts important light on the origins of permaculture ideas (which are commonly sold to us as something invented by modern white men).
The study found humans had farmed the area for more than 8,000 years, and planted staples such as sweet potato, squash, and maize. The lower layers of the forest were farmed, with minimal trees cleared and the upper canopy remaining fully intact – a far cry from the ‘slash and burn’ techniques we see today, which has focused on clearing all layers of the forest, leaving barren fields resulting in severe soil depletion.
“This is a very different use of the land to that of today, where large areas of land in the Amazon is cleared and planted for industrial scale grain, soya bean farming and cattle grazing. We hope modern conservationists can learn lessons from indigenous land use in the Amazon to inform management decisions about how to safeguard modern forests,” points out Yoshi Maezumi, lead author of the study.
So successful were their approaches, that the Amazon today is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, and many edible plants not only exist, but thrive.
These pioneer farmers also caused the cultivation of many foods we take for granted today – such as cocoa and brazil nuts – by selectively breeding trees, favouring those with the better fruits.
When faced with the problems of today, some solutions may be a mere 4,500 years old yet resonate now more than ever.