How one man's journey shows a way forward for us all
When you think of a farm, what comes to mind?
I see large fields of wheat or corn, broken up by tall silos and red barns. There are probably some cows or chickens, at least a dog, and there has to be a tractor to plow the fields and lift the heavy bales of hay.
When you think of a rainforest, what comes to mind?
I imagine large trees that dim the sun, draped in thick vines and hiding innumerable creatures. The dripping of water is constant, only unheard when an insect buzzes by or a bird calls from the canopy. It’s a damp and dark place, yet full of chaotic life in all its diversity.
You might have pictured something different depending on your background, but I bet it ran along similar lines, especially for those of us from Western countries. More so than other categories, landscapes evoke a shared image, perhaps because they are inherently public places. A park is an experience similar to almost everyone, whereas a school means different things to different people.
Also, the stories we tell and retell about landscapes are powerful ones, embedded in us from an early age. The Jungle Book and Old MacDonald’s farm are well-told stories, and only two of many that depict the landscapes that exist in people’s imaginations more than reality.
I have a story about farms and rainforests, too.
Rogelio Simbaña, an Indigenous Kichwa man from the Andean region of Ecuador, was born in 1975 on the same land his family has worked for generations, but not for their own benefit for the past 450 years. When the Spanish arrived, they took the best land and turned it into their haciendas. The locals got pushed to the areas that were colder or drier or generally more inhospitable, but they were still forced to work the good land for their new bosses.
It was a model repeated across the continent, and then around the world. Rogelio was born into a culture that had been subjugated and shamed for 450 years, and as a teenager he faced relentless bullying and discrimination from his mestizo peers at school. He wanted to fit in with some kind of group, as many teenagers do, and he decided to work hard and pursue a degree in Agronomy. He figured that bringing his family into the 20th century technologically could also lift them out of poverty, and he worked hard to be top of his class and show everyone that he was not just a simple “Indian.”
After graduating from University, he got a job at a large, industrial farm, and he was put to work caring for greenhouses full of flowers and fruits, all of which had to be visually perfect. Large farms achieve homogenous beauty by exploiting a plant’s ability to reproduce asexually.
Many plants can essentially clone themselves, which is great for reproducing desired traits like bright flowers and big fruit, but not so great for immunity from diseases and pests. The solution is a rigorous application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, to keep the plants producing and the pests at bay.
This is really the only way to grow large amounts of the same plant to a high standard, and Rogelio became an expert in chemicals and all their applications. Rogelio worked hard and was happy to be at the forefront of agriculture and, in a way, bring his people into the future. Then, he began to cough.
And that is what this story is really about: Rogelio’s cough mirrors our illness, and how he restores himself to health is how we must restore the Amazon Rainforest to health.
The Amazon rainforest is unimaginably vast, flat and green. It’s a source of water and danger, oxygen and medicine. And, as we all know, it is burning at an unsustainable rate. This is mainly because the Amazon has not been a reliable source of food for large populations, so people are cutting and burning it to make pasture for cows and fields for crops.
Farming in a rainforest is tough, for many reasons, but mostly because the soils are generally quite poor. All of the essential nutrients for life are stored in the multitude of beings that live there, and when a tree or animal falls to the forest floor, it is quickly decomposed into its base parts and taken up by nearby greenery.
Also, rainforests do live up to their name, and all those torrential downpours can quickly wash nutrients out of the soil if there is no vegetation to cover it. Organic matter and soil minerals do not last long in a rainforest.
Poor soils mean that farmers can only get two or three yields of agricultural crops from a plot of land before it is exhausted. Then they must either add nutrients in the form of fertilizers, or more simply, burn the next section of forest and plant again in the ashes.
This method is tough on the land and the people, and no one gets rich from slash and burn agriculture, besides the large beef companies, perhaps. Slash and burn is effective, but it is not particularly productive, and many historians believed that since the Indigenous peoples in the Amazon practiced slash and burn, they must have always done so and therefore had consistently low populations and nomadic lifestyles. This assumption was wrong.
More recent research, synthesized in Charles Mann’s 1491, has proven that the Amazon supported a very large and diverse population of Indigenous groups prior to European contact.
Throughout the Amazon basin are hills that rise above the annual flood line and have an exceptionally wide range of fruit bearing trees. The soils on these mounds are rich with nutrients, and curiously, often full of broken ceramics. It is becoming more and more clear that most of these hills were made by humans, and they were a type of farm unimaginable to Europeans when they arrived.
Rather than clear the forest to plant annual crops such as manioc or squash, Amazonians replaced it with fruit bearing trees that would provide a steady stream of nutrient rich fruits and protect the soil from the heavy downpours of the rainy season. There are 138 known domesticated plant species originating from the Amazon region, and more than half of those are trees that protected the soil and fed the people.
The soil was created by piling ceramics and organic matter, and the vast amounts of ceramics needed to make these hills is more evidence of how advanced these societies were. A pot is a valuable resource to a hunter-gatherer group, and it would be careless for such a group to break large amounts of pots to make stationary farms.
To an advanced and relatively sedentary society, with dedicated potters and people to tend the kiln, making and breaking pots to grow food makes sense. Funnily enough, modern soil scientists still do not know how these ancient landscapers created such rich soil from ceramics and the materials available to them.
The fact that these soils have survived for 300 years, an incredibly sustainable operation, shows that Amazonian people were more technologically advanced in this field than our society is now.
So what happened to these advanced Amazonian civilizations? How come there is no trace of them remaining? Well, the rainforest quickly repurposes anything once alive, and there is very little naturally occurring metal in the Amazon.
So, all their buildings and tools would have been derived from wood and stone, and those materials do not last long on the forest floor. The mounds and soils remain, but they can only be found when the forest is cleared. Ironically, the intentional clearing of the Amazon has revealed these man-made hills and proved that the assumptions Westerners had about Amazonian people were completely wrong.
The first Europeans to travel the Amazon river told tales of large cities and settled areas that stretched for miles and miles along the rivers. These stories led to the myth of El Dorado, and were later discounted by historians as the fanciful creations of sun-scorched, half-starved explorers.
Those first Europeans also brought disease with them, and the ones who followed hunted and enslaved the peoples they found, decimating the local populations.
Modern anthropologists now believe that the remaining cultures retreated into the forest as the Europeans advanced, living off their planted tree farms and reverting to slash and burn agriculture and nomadic, tribal lifestyles to avoid the Europeans.
The primitive tribes of the Amazon are not actually a window to the past showing pre-historic human lifestyles, but the remains of cultures devastated by disease and invaders.
Rogelio’s cough persisted. He saw multiple doctors and received many treatments, but nothing really helped. After years of worsening pain, a doctor finally told him that the chemicals he inhaled at his work would eventually kill him if he did not stop. Distraught and disheartened, he returned to his hometown to live with his parents as a 30-year-old man with no job and no prospects.
His father, a longtime farmer, let him stay, but Rogelio had to work to earn his keep. He went out into the terraced fields and learned to grow potatoes and quinoa; crops that had been selectively modified over thousands of years to thrive in the harsh conditions of the Andes. He ate the very plants he grew, his cough went away, and he became proud of his culture that promoted humble hard work to feed their own.
As Rogelio learned about traditional styles of agriculture, his interest in permaculture grew, and in 2003 he went to Brazil to take an intensive course in its principles and practices. There he experienced the food forests of the Amazon, and he realized that model could be brought back to the forested regions of Ecuador.
He began teaching permaculture practices in his home country and he managed to buy a plot of land that he slowly turned into a farm that demonstrates the benefits of those practices.
Students came and learned from him, and then returned to their own regions with their new permaculture knowledge, which is simply a synthesis of Indigenous agricultural practices under a new name.
Last year, Humans for Abundance needed a partner to create and conduct agriculture workshops in our partner community of Mushullakta, so that they could start transitioning their land into a food forest. Someone suggested we reach out to Rogelio, and the meeting and workshops have gone so well that he has now become our newest restorer.
We aim to fund his workshops all over the country, bringing regenerative agriculture back to all parts of Ecuador, healing the sicknesses caused by monoculture, and ensuring that its people are not only fed by their rainforest farms, but proud of their work and heritage, too.
If you wish to restore our tropical forests and bring Rogelio's workshops to Indigenous communities that can have great impact in the environment, buy his services here.