April 10, 2012

Ancient Amazonians demonstrate sustainable land management

brazilian_savannah_lr_dilwyn_jenkins.jpgEarly inhabitants of Amazonian savannah conserved their ecosystems through sustainable farming

A new study by top archaeologists and paleoecologists, demonstrates that indigenous people, living in the savannahs within and around the edges of the Amazonian rainforest, farmed without using fire. 


Published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,  the research provide insights into ancient sustainable farming techniques which helped conserve these globally-important ecosystems, which are being rapidly destroyed in the 21st century with much savannah worldwide being transformed for industrial agriculture and cattle ranching.

After analyzing pollen, charcoal and other plant remains reaching back over 2,000 years, the team created a detailed picture of pre-European arrival (i.e, pre 1492) land use in the Amazonian savannas in French Guiana.  The image we now have is of the early savanna dwellers practicing a form of ‘raised-field’ farming in which small agricultural mounds were made with wooden tools to provide better drainage, soil aeration and moisture retention. 

These raised fields were ideal for an ecosystem that experiences both drought and flooding and they also benefited from increased fertility with alluvial muck being regularly added to the mounds. Most importantly, however, these raised-field farmers limited the use of fire which really helped them conserve soil nutrients and soil organic matter.

The previously accepted view was that indigenous people used fire as a way of clearing the savannas and managing land. However, the new study shows that there was a sharp increase in fires with the arrival of the first European.

“Our results force reconsideration of the long-held view that fires were a pervasive feature of Amazonian savannas,” explains Dr. Power of the University of Utah.

Another lead contributor to this report, Dr. Iriarte of the University of Exeter, added: “This ancient, time-tested, fire-free land use could pave the way for the modern implementation of raised-field agriculture in rural areas of Amazonia. Intensive raised-field agriculture can become an alternative to burning down tropical forest for slash and burn agriculture by reclaiming otherwise abandoned and new savannah ecosystems created by deforestation. It has the capability of helping curb carbon emissions and at the same time provide food security for the more vulnerable and poorest rural populations.”

Sources: Science Daily


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