Farming and agriculture are necessary to human survival. Unfortunately, many regions and countries struggle with a lack of supply to meet demand in these industries, with people choosing to abandon rural life in search of urban environments. That being said, the Amazon rainforest has been facing the opposite issue, with farming practices taking the space of much needed animal habitats and leading to the destruction of large amounts of land.
For the most part, farming in the Amazon has gotten a bad reputation for destroying rainforest land and habitats and leading to its commercialization; however, agricultural practices have existed in the rainforest for thousands of years without causing any disruptions to the local ecosystems, and the agricultural conflicts are really only a recent phenomenon. Luckily, new Amazon Rainforest tours, sustainable partnerships and traditional methods are helping combat the problem.
Modern vs. Traditional Farming Methods
Native communities in the Amazon have a longstanding history as farmers and have been able to successfully continue their practices without disturbing the forest. They’ve done this by taking advantage of a traditional and sustainable form of farming known as shifting cultivation.
Modern agricultural practices first involve slashing and burning hundreds of acres of rainforest. This technique, however, is used to quickly clear the land and also brings the majority of the soil’s nutrients to the surface, facilitating a period of rapid growth potential for several years. Chemical fertilizers are then added to the soil and cash crops such as coffee, bananas, soybeans or coca are planted. While planting these crops allows the farmer to maximize their short-term profits, cultivating one type of plant all year long with the use of fertilization for years on end causes the soil quality to degrade quickly, rendering it effectively dead and unusable for agriculture. At this point, the farmer will repeat the process on a new plot of land, and when enough forest ground has been cleared, the area may be converted to a pasture for cattle breeding. This brings a whole new series of issues, as a cattle farm requires significantly more energy and resources to feed and maintain the cattle than plant-based agriculture.
Contrastingly, while traditional shifting cultivation still requires plots of rainforest to be leveled in order to create farming ground, trees are cut down (instead of burned) and used in the construction of local buildings and houses. When it comes time to plant crops, a different crop is planted in each plot, and several are left completely empty. Each year, the position of each crop and the plots left empty are rotated so the soil has a chance to regain its nutrients. Short term profits may not be as high — as the more profitable cash crops are not grown in each plot and some plots are left completely empty — but when this method is utilized, farming practices can continue on the same plots indefinitely without causing any permanent damage to the soil.
The Ese’eja Community
As the traditional farming methods don’t provide as much income as the slash-and-burn technique, many regions across the Amazon have abandoned the former type of agriculture for the latter. Fortunately, recent sustainability trends in food, agriculture and tourism have lead to cases of successful restoration of these practices and the partnership between the Ese’eja community in the Amazonian Madre de Dios region of Peru and travel company, Rainforest Expeditions. This has been a prime example of how these traditional farming methods can still lead to earnings that can support a financially sustainable community.
With modern food prices and the cost of land in the rainforest, many farms practicing shifting cultivation have become financially unfeasible. However, Rainforest Expeditions found that this type of agriculture had the hidden potential for additional earnings if it was bundled with similar minded sustainable tourism products, such as overnight stays in the company’s Posada Amazonas Eco Lodge while embarking on wildlife canopy tours and kayaking the Tambopata River. The farm would provide an additional area to tour, and the organically produced crops would be served as meals to the lodge’s guests. By including meals in the price of the tour and appealing to visitors who value sustainability, the lodge is able to set costs at a Fair Trade level.
What makes the agreement between the Ese’ eja and Rainforest Expeditions unique is the nature of the contract. During its active life (from 1996 until 2016), Rainforest Expeditions would slowly transfer profits, ownership and management of the eco lodge and farm to the community as they learned proper management techniques to ensure its long-term success and give members of the community time to adjust to a style of living catered towards tourism.
The Forest’s Hidden Farmland: My Experience
When I arrived at Posada Amazonas, it was clear this method of slowly transferring ownership from one party to the other was proving to be incredibly successful. The lodge and all of its rooms were bright and well maintained and all of the local workers I encountered were pleasant and cheerful.
One of the first activities I participated in during my stay was the tour of the local farm. I was told the farm was just across the river from the lodge, so we would be taking a short boat ride over. As I was also told the ride from the nearest city of Puerto Maldonado was also “short” but in turn spanned several hours and required numerous check-in points (one of which provided me with an official passport stamp), I braced myself for another lengthy voyage. However, “short” seemed to have regained its meaning since my last boat trip, and I was almost as surprised to be docking a mere minute after embarking. My confusion continued as we appeared to have settled not a farm, but simply another dense outcropping of trees.
Cultivating In Harmony With Nature
After a quick hike, I turned a corner and was face-to-face with a farmhouse and an older Ese’ ejan man tending to a group of chickens clucking around a group of plantation trees. He was enticed in his work and it took a couple moments (and a few throat clearings from our guide) for him to realize our arrival. Immediately, he smiled a shy apology and it became clear that the timid man took great pride in his work.
The farmer sat us in a circle on makeshift tree stump stools and began to explain how his family had been cultivating the rainforest for generations, learning how to live at peace with the land: If the farmer takes care of the land by not draining it, the land will ensure it takes care of the farmer by providing him with a consistent harvest.
After the speech, it became clear sustainability isn’t just a trend for the Ese’ eja. Its role and value is embedded deep within their culture and for thousands of years, they have understood the importance of respecting nature and valuing it for giving us life. Each one of our lives, whether it be based in a modern metropolis or remote region of the Amazon rainforest, is heavily dependent on nature’s gifts. This goes not just for sustenance, but also for medicine, building materials and even electronic components, and is something that often gets taken for granted in societies that become far removed from this connection.
That evening, we were presented with a traditional Peruvian soup, made exclusively from ingredients from the lodge’s farm. The deep, fresh flavors were undeniable, and after spending the morning being able to witness where all of the produce originated from and the amount of care that went into its cultivation, the meal was all the more delectable. Each bite stirred up not only hearty tastes and aromas, but also caring thoughts and memories of how each piece of the meal arrived at my plate. The dinner was more than a meal, it was an event where the rainforest and humanity came together in harmony to form a savory connection.
About The Author
Currently working in a museum, Judi Zienchuk has lived everywhere from Southeast Asia to Northwestern Canada. She loves travel, longboarding and coffee flavoured ice cream. To get more personal, check out her blog, Travvel Sized.
Featured image via Brooke
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