How Can We Relearn to Live With Nature in a Way That Allows for Abundance?

Updated: May 6

With commentary by Paula Iturralde Pólit

The Sumaco Volcano seems to emerge through the trees of the Sumaco-Galeras Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Its summit is over 3800 m.a.s.l. but to walk to the highest point, you will have to cross paths surrounded by lush vegetation from 1500 m, where it is still a tropical rain forest. You will pass through the pre-montane forest, montane forest, Andean forest, and then the paramo and the rocks. Each ecosystem seems to be separated from the previous one by a magical window because, oddly enough, the change in vegetation is radical. There will be no way that the change in vegetation will go unnoticed.
Sumaco Volcano, Ecuador

A symbiotic way of living with nature can be a reality by joining forces with indigenous communities regardless of the distance to a tropical forest. No matter how far away from it you live, most of the resources that we, humans, use daily come from the forest, one way or another.


One crucial step to becoming part of the solution is learning how indigenous communities have understood a way of living in symbiosis with the forest for over 3000 years. By learning this, we can get involved and support the development of these sustainable practices in current settlements based on what is feasible.


While intact forests are determinants for mitigating the ongoing climate, water, and biodiversity crisis, the reality is that indigenous people use the land and live from it. Therefore, it is imperative that they maintain ancestral knowledge to improve productive activities that protect nature now and for future generations.




People Belong in the Forest

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit an indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. It was located far from the nearest road, and the only way to get there (or out) was by foot. There were no supermarkets, no cars or buses, no noise or pollution. Initially, I could describe the experience as a total disconnection from what we assume of the current world.


However, I am convinced that the proper word should not have the prefix dis since it denotes negation. It is more accurate to say connection because I finally had the opportunity to merge with the natural world and understand a different way of living.


In the community, the daily activities took place in symbiosis with nature. The crystal-clear river ran along almost touching the cabins built only with material obtained from the forest. They fed mainly on the vegetable products that grew in a small cultivated patch next to their homes.


This experience comes to mind as I look through maps that suggest what the Amazon may have been like in the past and reading what Esteban Matheus shares this month with Humans for Abundance.


Indigenous peoples have inhabited the entire Amazon basin for tens of thousands of years and in large numbers. This map shows the many language groups encountered and recorded by the Europeans at the time of the conquest. However, we have collectively forgotten this fact within our current worldview. We now imagine the Amazon forest as a pristine paradise, untouched by humans, that needs to be preserved.



Timing of Human Presence

Then I became curious to know how long the community I was lucky to visit had been established. It is difficult to know the exact date, but other communities had likely already inhabited these areas before the conquest. However, in the information shared by Esteban, he states that:


During the conquest, the diseases brought overseas decimated the populations of the indigenous communities in this region in the subsequent centuries. Now the exploitation of the Amazon has advanced, roads have been built, forests have been clear cut, and the Amazon is once again becoming inhabited. Both by indigenous communities and new settlers.


Currently, the inhabitants are the indigenous communities who live near natural areas. Those areas need to be conserved and reforested to mitigate a large percentage of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.


Conservation with Human Presence

Through our work at Humans for Abundance, we realised that traditional conservation is a defensive act that excludes the people and culture from the ecosystems intended to be protected. Many conservation efforts fail as they are seen as an imposition by local inhabitants. To achieve sustained, long-term protection and regeneration of habitat, our actions need to be connected to social and cultural regeneration.

The challenge we now face is: can we once again learn to live within the rainforest in a symbiotic way that allows for abundance and biodiversity?


We must actively work to change systems that rationalise harm to the environment and communities as the unavoidable cost of a prosperous society. We appeal to share efforts and recognise local knowledge which might be present either because they have inherited old practices, learned new ones day-to-day, or both.



Humans and Forest in Symbiosis

To begin to answer the question, we are looking at the research that has come about in the last few decades regarding the relationships between pre-Columbian indigenous populations and the Amazon forest.

What is being discovered is fascinating – through numerous investigations on the distribution of tree species that are now identified as useful domesticated species, it has been found that vast areas of the Amazon basin have a high concentration of these species, in patterns that do not respond to ecological conditions. In fact, their distribution is highly correlated with archeological sites throughout the Amazon.



This map shows the large number of archeological sites that have been discovered along with the distribution of these domesticated forests. What this means is that indigenous peoples have been modifying – or actively designing – the Amazon rainforest over millennia. How this was achieved is being understood through looking at indigenous communities that have had less contact with the modern world, as well as through analysis of archaeological indicators.



Forest Adapted by Humans

I cannot ignore how these relatively new discoveries are connected to what I saw when I visited the indigenous community. The products growing at their chakra were literally next to a tiny wooden house where they cooked every meal over firewood.


The chakra in the Ecuadorian Amazon is a sustainable production system where local peoples adapt the soil to grow edible, medicinal, fruit, spiritual, and ornamental species. This ancestral system is generally managed by women known as chakramamas, who apply traditional and ecological knowledge while conserving the forest, water, soil, and wildlife.

Also, the research shows that many of the domesticated crops in South America were domesticated in the Amazon. This graphic shows the known and suspected locations of 20 crop species and regions of significant concentrations of these species. Also shown is the distribution of brazil nut populations that highly correlate with archeological sites.



This map plots the large number of archaeological sites found throughout the Amazon basin, along with two other factors that are evidence of human modification of the forest; in red are areas where significant earthworks have been discovered underneath the forest cover and in yellow are vast zones of human-created soils.





It seems interesting to imagine how indigenous peoples, subsisting mainly from agriculture, were able to create highly fertile areas. So, I wonder whether pre-Columbian Amazon inhabitants had to manage the soils artificially to make them more fertile or rather used their knowledge to recognise patches of richer soils before choosing an area to settle.


Soils Influenced by Human Presence

The black circles in this map mark where soil surveys have unearthed anthropogenic soils, which shows the extent of populations that had enough permanency to modify these soils over many years.


The soil in the Amazon is prone to be acidic and not fertile, while the human-created soils are in many locations over a meter deep. These soils were created by a process that involved controlled burning of the underbrush in a process similar to producing bio-char.



The research suggests that populations would inhabit the land for 10 to 15 years and then move to another area, and this controlled burning was part of a cycle where communities would then return to areas that were left to regenerate. Through this process, pre-Columbian peoples influenced vast areas of the Amazon through this semi-nomadic relationship with the forest.




There is also evidence suggesting that indigenous people, before the conquest, took advantage of their knowledge to identify the most fertile soil areas and choose them as places to settle, such as the places near the rivers.

It is possible that one of the greatest legacies of the ancestral cultures in the Amazon is the so-called "terras pretas” or black earth, rich in nutrients and abundant charcoal. This legacy also extends through traditional activities that may have influenced the forests' structure, composition, and dynamics.

So what we can learn from this is that, to some extent, pre-Columbian Amazonian populations may have already had a degree of influence over pristine forests. Human beings have been an active part of the Amazon ecosystem for millennia.


We also learn that the dichotomy of human vs. nature is a cultural choice. It is possible for humans to be agents of regeneration, biodiversity, and abundance.



SOURCES:
  1. Clement, et al. (2015). The domestication of Amazonia before European conquest. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 282(1812).

  2. Levis, C., et al. (2017). Persistent effects of pre-Columbian plant domestication on Amazonian forest composition. Science, 355(6328), 925–931.

  3. Levis, Carolina, Flores, B. M., Moreira, P. A., Luize, B. G., Alves, R. P., Franco-Moraes, J., Lins, J., Konings, E., Peña-Claros, M., Bongers, F., Costa, F. R. C., & Clement, C. R. (2018). How people domesticated Amazonian forests. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 5(JAN), 171.

  4. Maezumi, S. Y, et al. (2018). The legacy of 4,500 years of polyculture agroforestry in the eastern Amazon. Nature Plants 2018 4:8, 4(8), 540–547.

  5. McMichael, C. N. H., et al. (2017). Ancient human disturbances may be skewing our understanding of Amazonian forests. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(3), 522–527.

  6. Piperno, D. R., et al. (2021). A 5,000-year vegetation and fire history for tierra firme forests in the Medio Putumayo-Algodón watersheds, northeastern Peru. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 118(40).

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