This is the first of a series of blogs showcasing the permaculture demonstration sites Alianza Arkana is supporting. The aim is to cultivate a regenerative eco-social movement for Shipibo communities in Yarinacocha as part of the project “Bena Nii” – meaning ‘New Forest’.
They were already working when we arrived at 8:30 in the morning, sweating before the sun broke through the clouds. Looking around me, the Amazonian community of San Francisco was one dominated by tall grass. Amazon? Where are the trees?
There is a general belief regarding the Amazon that the profit-driven interests of businesses and governments are encroaching upon the besieged pristine rainforest. While there is a great deal of validity to this, what is also true is that the rainforest we see, know, and love is the result of long-term, intensive ecological management on the part of the indigenous denizens of the forest. The Shipibo, like many Amazonian peoples, have been practicing swidden agriculture (slash and burn) for time immemorial, since it proved the most effective methodology for keeping the ever-encroaching forest canopy at bay for short-lived, sun-hungry crops. Eventually fruit trees replaced the staple crops and created a diverse food forest. The cycle then began again, slash, burn, plant, eat, diversify, thrive! Thus, permaculture was being practiced in the Amazon long before the arrival of Europeans, adding rich forest products to a predominantly fish-based Shipibo diet.
Fast-forward to an era where deforestation has become a stark reality for the Shipibo’s modern day descendants: slash and burn now has very different and destructive ramifications. Annual burning to ‘reinvigorate’ the soil opens up territory for invasive, noxious grasses that thrive in a fire ecology. This encourages highly destructive fires to rage across the deforested landscape in the dry season, destroying everything in their path year after year.
To compound the problem, some of these grasses are allelopathic, which means that they secrete growth-inhibiting substances into the soil and prevent (or dramatically slow) forest regeneration and productive farming. As such, slash and burn has become an increasingly ineffective and inappropriate tool for landscape management here. This part of Yarinacocha was severely burned as recently as 2012, largely due to slash and burn and the absence of any natural fire barriers.
The permaculture demonstration plot at San Francisco was distinguishable from the rest of the sea of grass only in that it flowed no longer: it had been flattened. It turns out the most simple and effective way to keep the grass at bay is not by eradication but stomping – the first of several steps in the process of assisted natural regeneration. After a few minutes’ discussion, Fernando Cauper Zumeta – a Shipibo Permaculture specialist and graduate of the SEED program – handed me a two by four with a rope looped through both ends. “Have at it,” I was told. Stepping on our boards, we were able to crush a swath of grass in just one hour that would have taken days hacking with machetes.
With most primary forest here destroyed fifty years ago by the logging industry, the Shipibo have struggled to continue their traditional practices, and their traditional knowledge of the rainforest is being lost among the younger generation, including their culture’s rich medicinal and spiritual relationships with the many powerful plant species of the region. Culturally this has manifested in a shift towards Western lifestyles and patterns of consumption. In this tragic positive feedback loop, the whole thing amplifies itself: the loss of forest feeding the disconnect from nature, causing cultural disintegration, thereby perpetuating the environmental degradation that started it all.
Permaculture is an effective intervention tool for these ecological and social challenges because at its core it is concerned with advancing holistic well-being. It is grounded in an ethical foundation of earth-care, people-care & future-care. It was inspired in large part by the principles, practices and values of indigenous peoples around the world who succeeded in enriching, not degrading, the landscape around them through mindful and skillful stewardship.
After flattening the grass, Fernando and his team got out yet another instrument I was unfamiliar with. A ‘water level’ used to measure gradient (since water always finds the level!). Part of crafting an effective design is to know, quite literally, the landscape you are dealing with. One element of this is the contours (the natural curves of the land). To obtain the correct measurements, Fernando and his assistants used the water level to intimately discover the “lay of the land.”
Knowing this important information directs the design by indicating what parts of the site are best suited for which activities and where interventions such as swales (infiltration ditches on contour) are necessary. Other assessments had also been conducted, like soil and vegetation analyses and surveying the entire site for factors like sunlight, weather, and animal sectors.
By knowing site characteristics, as well as the goals and needs of the project, the team has been able to effectively divide the site into zones that each serve a unique purpose:
- Zone 1: Housing; Nursery; Horticultural systems using perennial plants and sheet mulching (chaya, moringa, camote, sweet potato, chayote, pigeon pea, etc).; Small, snack fruits (citrus, custard apple, jaboticabas, etc.); and small animal husbandry (chickens, ducks, bees, etc.)
- Zone 2: Inga alley-cropping and swales on contour for water retention with bananas, plantain, papayas, pigeon pea, sweet potato, manioc, corn, peanuts, sugarcane, pineapple, and medicinal plants, etc.
- Zone 3: Agroforestry, aquaculture and medicinal plants
- Zone 4: Timber (capirona, pashaco, bolaina, mahogany, ceder, ishpingo, etc.) and non-timber forest products (brazil nuts, copal, dragon’s blood, macadamia nuts, vegetable ivory, etc.), and medicinal plants.
- Zone 5: Forest regeneration and wildlife preservation area.
Ascending numerically, the zones require less frequent maintenance and are therefore located further away from the central, organizing hub. The team is currently dedicating their time to Zones 1 & 2, with an emphasis on water catchment and storage, erosion prevention, and fire breaks – crucial elements that the entire site will need as a baseline to function well in the future.
As he leaned against one side of the water level, I asked Fernando what he thought of the whole project. Having recently graduated from the SEED introduction to permaculture course, he seemed most excited about the prospect of learning more about permaculture…and then paying it forward. “My vision of a successful project is one where we’ve set up the demonstration plot so that my friends and neighbors can start coming here to see what we’ve been working on, and then take back everything they need to replicate it in their own gardens.”
Right on track.