Amazon farmers look to past for new model


In 1957, an American geologist for Shell named Kenneth Lee was on a survey flight over the department of Beni in the Bolivian Amazon when he spotted what appeared to be the remains of a highly sophisticated civilization on the tropical savanna below. Peering out the window of his airplane, he saw the outlines of what he thought had once been raised agricultural fields and immense water channels. Stunned, he embarked on years of on-the-ground archeological research to document his discovery.

Most archaeologists refused to take him seriously. They said the soils of Bolivia’s great Amazonian savanna were too poor and acidic and the seasonal flooding too extreme to support anything other than hunter-gatherers or tiny village societies. Vindication came in the 1990s. Research by anthropologist Clark Erickson at the University of Pennsylvania and others seemed to confirm the existence over centuries on the savanna, called the Llanos de Moxos, of a culture as highly developed in some ways as those of the Aztecs and Incas.

Lee’s discovery has done more than help reshape views of the past. It also has birthed a promising agricultural model for this region’s future. Since 2008, several hundred families in Beni have adopted land-use and farming techniques very similar to those of the Moxos peoples, producing spectacular results. The families not only grow a wide variety of crops during periods of extreme flooding and drought. They have tripled their production and income. “The technologies of the Moxos, improved with modern methods, ensure that farmers can grow their crops year-round and dramatically improve their standard of living,” says Oscar Saavedra, a Bolivian agroecologist who has pioneered his own modern adaptations of the Moxos’ system.

Many experts now say the wisdom of the Moxos, who inhabited Beni from around 1000 B.C. to 1400 A.D., could boost food security and prosperity for Amazonian farmers in Bolivia and other countries and help offset the effects of climate change. The recognition has caught the notice of funders. The Bolivian and Dutch governments and local authorities in the municipality of Trinidad in Beni collectively have contributed over US$1 million to the cause since 2008. They have financed Oxfam, its local partner—the Kenneth Lee Foundation—and Saavedra’s nongovernmental Amazonia Sostenible to run pilot projects that resurrect the Moxos’ agricultural practices.

Says Roger Quiroga, Oxfam’s Bolivia coordinator for risk reduction and climate-change adaptation: “The Moxos system solves the two big issues of the Amazon, drought and flood, just as flooding is getting worse.”

The system is simple. Elevated fields, or camellones, are built up on mounds of earth above flood level and surrounded by canals that protect seeds and crops from being washed away during the November to May rainy season. Farmers raise a piranha-like fish known as tambaqui (Colossoma macropomum) in the channels, which helps increase the food supply, and grow an aquatic plant known as tarope (Eichhornia azurea) that purifies the water and makes excellent organic fertilizer when composted. When the dry season comes, the water channels are tapped to irrigate fields.

The age-old technology still works, Saavedra says, by harnessing floodwaters for the farmers’ benefit in the period between rainy seasons. “Farmers in this region typically grow rice, corn, cassava and plantains along the rivers, where the fertile soil is,” Saavedra explains. “But when the floods are extreme, the crops are washed away. The camellones, by contrast, are above the flood level. As a result, farmers can produce their crops securely year-round and harvest three times a year, rather than just once, as most people do. They are able to move beyond traditional production and grow crops which command high prices locally, such as tomatoes, peppers, carrots and onions.”

The vulnerability of conventional farming is all too clear to Bolivians. In February 2008, heavy rains opened up over Beni, flooding three-quarters of the department, destroying crops and causing some US$90 million in agricultural losses. According to a 2011 report by the United Nations Development Program, precipitation in the Bolivian Amazon has increased 15% since 1970. With rivers such as the Mamoré and Beni regularly bursting their banks and eviscerating fields, thousands of farmers have been driven into city slums. Hundreds more have taken refuge in the forested highlands, where they use slash-and-burn clearing to carve out new plots, exacerbating the problems of climate change and flooding that drove them from the savanna in the first place.

In such circumstances, the use of camellones is a potentially powerful solution. It reflects growing interest around the world in employing ancient agricultural techniques to deal with everything from water scarcity, flooding and wildfires to the rapid loss of biodiversity. Parameters seem to be shifting as scientists, and in some cases governments, discover the appeal of bygone, low-technology methods. They are finding that such “primitive” solutions can prove effective and sustainable without the drawbacks of so-called advanced agricultural techniques, such as large-scale dams and the intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers, that often create as many problems as they solve.

“I don’t think we should romanticize ancient societies, some of which clearly overexploited their natural resources,” says Vernon Scarborough, an anthropology professor and expert on global water systems at the University of Cincinnati. “But those societies didn’t have the means to massively and immediately alter their environments. So they experimented with incremental technological changes over generations. They propagated what worked and, discarding what didn’t, often arrived at sustainable solutions that allowed them to be good stewards of their lands.”

The results, he says, are plain to see. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Chinese government revived the ancient practice of raising fish in rice paddies, an approach that establishes a symbiotic relationship in which the fish eat weeds and pests that would otherwise ravage the paddies. So successful has the method become that a quarter of farmed fish in China are now raised in rice paddies, and the use of pesticides and herbicides in Chinese rice farming has been radically reduced. In India’s Rajasthan state, ancient rainwater-harvesting techniques have been revived to deal with groundwater loss and drought, and other age-old technologies are being embraced elsewhere in the world.

Scarborough wishes governments would become more open to traditional techniques. For over 35 years, he has been studying natural and man-made ponds, called aguadas, that ranged from 25 meters in diameter to the size of 10 swimming pools and were used by the ancient Mayans in what is now Mexico and Guatemala. Designed to capture rainfall, the aguadas were created out of natural sinkholes and depressions, or were dug out by hand, then lined with impermeable clay, stone or plaster to prevent seepage. Silting tanks at their entrances filtered sediment, and the large, flat leaves of an endemic water lily (Nymphaea ampla) prevented excess evaporation. As a result, the Mayans had ready access to drinking water and irrigation even when there was little available surface water. They used the water-management system to feed hundreds of thousands of people and flourish as a civilization from 400 B.C. to 900 A.D. amid periodic drought and thin soils that challenge farmers today.

“Some scientists think that the aguadas could be useful in providing water and food security in rural areas of Central America,” Scarborough says. “But governments have not promoted them. They seem instead to be seduced by the idea of constructing huge dams that massively alter the tropical landscape.”

In Venezuela, the Pemón Indians have long inhabited the savanna of Canaima National Park and its environs in Bolívar state, setting fire to the grass at strategic times and places. This has put them in conflict with park authorities, who believe the practice contributes to habitat loss, puts vulnerable animal species at risk and contributes to the deterioration of watersheds that feed the Guri Dam, which supplies over 70% of Venezuela’s energy. Scientists studying the Pemón practice, however, say they are actually fighting fire with fire.

By selectively burning small portions of the savanna, the Pemón create firebreaks that, in turn, stop more destructive conflagrations. They do so with the greatest precision. They set the grass alight only in areas where the soil is still damp from recent rains and where neighboring patches, recently burned, ensure the fires do not spread. “We burn as caretakers of the savanna and the forests, closely examining where to burn and how far the fire is going to expand,” a Pemón elder told Iokiñe Rodríguez, an anthropologist at the state-run Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC) in Caracas. “That is how we live.”

Fire has other uses, too. The Pemón use it to communicate through smoke signals, eliminate snakes, spur the growth of green grasses that attract game, and even to drive insects into the rivers and facilitate fishing.

Rodríguez and other scientists hope authorities’ attitudes toward ancient ways will evolve. In the 1970s, the Venezuelan authorities jailed members of the Pemón tribe when they spotted smoke hovering over Canaima. In 21st century Australia, the government recently incorporated similar aboriginal burning practices into fire management. “We have been advocating for a policy change and are beginning to see greater tolerance and even openness among some officials,” Rodríguez says.

In Bolivia, that battle has already been won for the camellones. If farmers and policymakers had any doubts, the dramatic floods in Beni put them to rest. The camellones not only protect farmers from the flooding, Quiroga says—they also offer a quick solution. “The Moxos built up these elevated fields with their hands over years,” he says. “Today, it can be done with tractors and earth-moving equipment in a week.”

Oxfam is considering an extension of its camellones project to the Colombian and Ecuadorian Amazon, where there is evidence that similar systems were used in pre-Columbian times. As in Bolivia, the camellones would most likely be built on land already cleared for agriculture, so no deforestation would take place.

“Before, the waters took everything and left us nothing to harvest,” says Erminia Guaji Yuco, a 60-year-old mother and farmer in Beni. “But the camellones have been good to us. We’ve been using them for four years and have plantains, yucca, papaya, beans and peppers.”

- Steve Ambrus

Roger Quiroga
Coordinator for Climate Change Adaptation
Oxfam Bolivia
La Paz, Bolivia
Tel: +(591 2) 278-8323
Iokiñe Rodríguez
Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (Ivic)
Caracas, Venezuela
Tel: +(58 212) 504-1727
Oscar Saavedra
Executive Director
Amazonia Sostenible
Trinidad, Bolivia
Tel: +(59 17) 281-0711
Vernon Scarborough
Distinguished University Research Professor
University of Cincinnati
Cincinnati, OH, United States
Tel: (513) 556-5776