News

    Study: Centuries-Old Farming Methods Hold Key to Rainforest Conservation

    Ancient Amazon farmers shunned slash-and-burn techniques

    Unaltered agricultural raised fields in French Guyana that remain much as ancient Amazon farmers left them. The simulated background flames represent the European slash-and-burn agriculture that came afterward.
    Unaltered agricultural raised fields in French Guyana that remain much as ancient Amazon farmers left them. The simulated background flames represent the European slash-and-burn agriculture that came afterward.

    Multimedia

    Audio
    Rosanne Skirble

    The Amazon region of South America, the largest tropical rainforest and river basin on Earth, is disappearing at a rate of around 800,000 hectares a year, but a new study finds one possible strategy for reversing this trend in ancient Amazonian farming methods.

    Analysis of a 1,000-year-old ecological record in the Amazon provides a rare glimpse at early farming practices before European explorers began arriving in the Americas more than 500 years ago.

    The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds the ancient farming methods could slow the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

    The rapid expansion of agriculture and cattle ranching, road and dam construction, and illegal logging are the biggest drivers of this massive deforestation.  

    Lead author Jose Iriarte, a paleoethnobotonist at the University of Exeter in England, focused on a coastal wetland savanna in present-day French Guyana, on South America’s northeastern coast, where ancient farm beds and canals remain, unaltered, on the landscape.  In pre-colonial history, Iriarte says, this was a period when farmers “reclaimed these seasonally flooded savannas into raised-field agricultural landscapes.”

    A sediment core from the site provided the team with an unusually intact archive of how farmers farmed these fields. It shows pollen, plant species and charcoal before and after the European colonization in the late 15th and 16th centuries.

    Geographer Mitchell Power, curator of the Natural History Museum at the University of Utah, studied charcoal in the core. He says while evidence shows that naturally-occurring fires began decreasing globally around 1500 - a period of documented climate cooling - that’s not what they saw in the Amazonian record.

    “When we went to the French Guyana site to try to understand the record, the most surprising thing to me was that it was the opposite trend.  Fire was very low and then after 1500, fire increased," he said. "That was contrary to what 90 percent of the rest of the records around the world are telling us.”

    Before European settlers arrived, farmers on the rainforest savanna grew crops in raised beds, a practice which would be forgotten for 500 years.
    Before European settlers arrived, farmers on the rainforest savanna grew crops in raised beds, a practice which would be forgotten for 500 years.

    Iriarte says the farmers understood how fire could harm the land and agricultural production.

    “We know that fire results in the loss of crucial nutrients for crops, [and that] fallows without fires are most effective in restoring soil organic matter and preserving soil structure," he said. "So we interpreted that they were limiting fires because it was better to grow crops in these raised field systems.”

    Iriarte says use of this fire-free method by the pre-Columbian farmers helped them transform the seasonally-flooded savanna into productive cropland.

    “Raised fields provided better drainage, soil aeration, and also moisture retention during the dry season. These raised fields were constructed mainly with the muck from these seasonally flooded savannahs," he said. "So they are really fertile and they can be recycled every season.”

    Mitchell Power says this labor-intensive approach ended abruptly when as much as 95 percent of the indigenous population died from a variety of Old-World diseases brought by the European settlers.

    “Once the Columbian encounter happens we don’t see that type of agriculture any more," he said. "We start to see increased burning and a shift toward dry land farming. So people were then clearing forests and making their raised beds in the forests. And what we think is happening was a huge demographic collapse in this region.”

    Slash-and-burn agriculture - introduced to the Amazon not by the native farmers but by European colonizers - remains today a major threat to the rainforest. Experts say if such practices continue at the current rate, more than half of the Amazon’s tropical rainforest could be gone by 2030.

    Iriarte says pre-Columbian farming methods offer a tried-and-true alternative.

    “It has the capability to help curb carbon emissions and at the same time provide food security for the more vulnerable and poorest rural populations of rural Amazonia,” he said.

    The authors say bringing back these labor-intensive but productive farming systems to serve today’s - and tomorrow’s - food needs will require extensive farmer re-training - and the political will of the region’s governments. And they believe that if the Amazon’s current stewards can reclaim the wisdom of their ancestors, the damage to the world’s greatest rainforest can be slowed.

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: michael
    April 12, 2012 5:13 AM
    What does this one thousand year old ecological record actually say? Perhaps it was a warning to others to not do it that way. We ought to see this 'trend' in the original

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growthi
    X
    February 10, 2016 5:54 AM
    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Civil Rights Pioneer Remembers Struggle for Voting Rights

    February is Black History Month in the United States. The annual, month-long national observance pays tribute to important people and events that shaped the history of African Americans. VOA's Chris Simkins reports how one man fought against discrimination to help millions of blacks obtain the right to vote
    Video

    Video Jordanian Theater Group Stages Anti-Terrorism Message

    The lure of the self-styled “Islamic State” has many parents worried about their children who may be susceptible to the organization’s online propaganda. Dozens of Muslim communities in the Middle East are fighting back -- giving young adults alternatives to violence. One group in Jordan is using dramatic expression a send a family message. Mideast Broadcasting Network correspondent Haider Al Abdali shared this report with VOA. It’s narrated by Bronwyn Benito
    Video

    Video Migrant Crisis Fuels Debate Over Britain’s Future in EU

    The migrant crisis in Europe is fueling the debate in Britain ahead of a referendum on staying in the European Union that may be held this year. Prime Minister David Cameron warns that leaving the EU could lead to thousands more migrants arriving in the country. Meanwhile, tension is rising in Calais, France, where thousands of migrants are living in squalid camps. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Families Flee Aleppo for Kurdish Regions in Syria

    Not all who flee the fighting in Aleppo are trying to cross the border into Turkey. A VOA reporter caught up with several families heading for Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.