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Preserving Language and Culture

Some Unsustainable Options


 The green revolution of the 1960s achieved critical increases in food production by reducing biodiversity. Around the world traditional permaculture, hunting and gathering gave way to monocultural agribusiness because these earlier forms of life could no longer sustain increased population.   In part because of its isolation the Amazon has lagged behind other parts of the world in this transformation.  Amazonian forests emerged as a way of maximizing biodiversity by limiting the population increase of anyone species in a given area. There are thus real limits both to the increasing of population living off hunting, fishing and gathering or to increasing the production of human food without causing the collapse of biodiversity.    Whether this is possible on a worldwide scale or not we believe that it is possible and necessary to increase income generation and biodiversity at the same time.  First it is useful to quickly dispatch some false options


1) The illusory hope of returning to the past.  If left in peace, can Amazonian communities still live sustainably off  hunting and gardening (chagras)?    No.  We have found that most rural Kichwa speakers prefer a minimum wage job to small scale, subsistence farming.  Why?


Several reasons make this form of life increasingly unsustainable.  In the past chagras were rotated over large areas allowing forest to lie fallow for 20 years between plantings.  The shrinking land base has made rotation impossible for all but a tiny percentage of the population.  This creates a situation where subsistence farmers quickly wear out their small farms leaving nowhere for their children to live or farm. 

Hunting and fishing are no longer sustainable at the required volume.  Out of necessity some hunters in every community shoot and eat almost anything that moves.  With a hungry rural population fishing with dynamite or poisons is almost impossible to control


2).  Most forest products that can be sold become commodities: quinine, rubber, cacao, coffee, palm oil, mohaghany, but also wayusa, ayawaska, plants used for medicines or cosmetics.   


When crops become commodities they are mass produced in the countries where they can be grown at the lowest cost and their price drops quickly:   Small indigenous farmers can no longer make a living selling these products because:

small farms cannot compete with large scale farms

farm hand labor cannot compete with mechanized farming

mixed crop permaculture cannot compete with monoculture

Walmart factor--large scale marketing cannot compete with mom and pop marketing

Commodities compete for scale 1)in the size of the farms; with monoculture; with substantial agribusiness investment that can sustain downturns.    At least once a year a new forest product is heralded as the solution to deforestation: balsa, teak, cacao, wayusa, African palm, a Burseraceae for making vegetarian ice cream.   All of these become a commodities that must compete worldwide for the least expensive per hectare production.   Somewhere they will be monoculture agribusiness plantations with commercial fertilizers tended by low wage or near slave labor.    A recent article on kenari, a Burseraceae used to produce vegetarian ice cream, says that 16,000 tonnes of kenari per year from a single island off Bali.   But what does it take to produce that much in a small space.  Is the the whole island must a monoculture plantation?  If so it would be a biodiversity desert.    Planting smaller numbers in a mixed could not compete. A permaculture mixed crop small farm is more labor intensive and so more expensive to operate than a monoculture small farm because production cannot be mechanized.   Furthermore, small farms in the Amazon are no better at competing with large scale agriculture than are small farms in other parts of the world.


Fair price organic marketing is of limited success.




The children or others invade adjacent reserves to which they claim a right based on the previous territorial boundaries of their ancestors.   Local law enforcement often will not take action against incursions by indigenous families seeking to recover ancestral lands.  Because of the emergency need for cash the invaded lands are often resold to settlers after titles have been established. 

So what is the answer?   How can forest preserves combine indigenous ownership with the goals of preserving biodiversity?    We suggest a strategy where donor's purchase of forest is tied to the creation of long term indigenous employment in managing the forest.  

Challenges of buying forest for preserves:


The shrinking forest land base has created a conflict between increasing or securing local indigenous ownership on the one hand and increasing the size of nature preserves on the other.  One apparent solution that has not worked well is the promoting of permaculture on small plots privately owned by indigenous subsistence farmers.


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"Sustainability Assessment of Smallholder Agroforestry Indigenous Farming in the Amazon:A Case Study of Ecuadorian Kichwas,"

Marco Heredia-R, Bolier Torres, Jhenny Cayambe, Nadia RamosMarcelo Luna and Carlos G. H. Diaz-Ambrona,  Agronomy15 December 2020.


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