The Multiplier Effect: Indigenous Permaculture in the Amazon

Last week in the Shipibo indigenous community of Santa Clara a 5-day Introduction Course to Ecological Farming unfolded in beautiful and unexpected ways…

A Brief History

Since 2012, Alianza Arkana has been supporting the Bena Nii-New Forest Permaculture program creating community demonstration sites in Shipibo indigenous villages with the goals of:

  • Promoting ecological agricultureZone 1 at Kuka Ethnobotanical Garden
  • Advancing food sovereignty
  • Enhancing local nutrition
  • Regenerating degraded Amazonian ecosystems
  • Educating about biodiversity
  • Restoring culturally-important flora to community landscapes
  • Creating family- and community-scale successional agroforestry systems, and
  • Supporting the emergence of regenerative farmer cooperatives which advance eco-social entrepreneurship

In 2014, the Shipibo people who have been learning and applying Permaculture through this program formed the Indigenous Network of Amazonian Permaculturalists (RIPA – la Red Indígena de Permacultores Amazónicos). This is when everything really started gathering steam…

Working in the Bena Nii Nursery

Shipibo Permaculture in Action

The leaders of RIPA co-facilitated this course and taught most of the sessions in the Shipibo language. Luke Smith, the Director of Regenerative Design for Alianza Arkana commented, “I need to improve my Shipibo so I can understand all they are saying! The most important thing is that a vehicle for their engagement has been created so that they can connect to one another and these ideas that are simultaneously new and ancient. It is not important that I understand, but it would be so amazing to be able to appreciate how these concepts are resonating with their own cultural perspectives!”

Shipibo participants paying close attentionThe 30 participants of this course were diverse in origin, age, gender, and experience. They came representing the Intercultural University of the Amazon (UNIA); The National University of Ucayali (UNU); The Organization of Indigenous Youth of the Ucayali Region (OJIRU); The Coordinator of Amazonian Indigenous Women (CODEMIA); The Rainforest Ecoversity Center (RECOVER); KUKA Ethnobotanical Garden; and 7 Shipibo communities: San Francisco, Nuevo Egipto, Santa Clara, Paoyan, Canaan de Cachiyacu, Bena Jema, and Yarinacocha.

Marcos Urquia, a Shipibo Permaculture expert working with Alianza Arkana since 2011 and a founding member of RIPA, said, “I was acting as the MC and facilitator, in addition to being one of the instructors, and I learned a bunch. And I saw a very good level of discussion and group work because there was an academic component due to the presence of members of the technological and pedagogical universities, as well as groups of people from the communities and youth that are just starting to learn and have contact with this kind of material. And so, there was an energy in the group where a problem would arise and we would work out a solution immediately. We even translated 16 principles of Permaculture into Shipibo!”

Learning zones and sectors

The course covered topics such as:

  • Ethics and principles of Permaculture
  • Patterns and models present in nature
  • Zones and sectors
  • The destructive fire cycle and alternatives to slash and burn
  • The effect of agrochemicals on human and environmental health
  • Integrated pest management and companion planting
  • Soil and fertility management (composts, vermiculture, nitrogen fixing plants, chop & drop/alley-cropping and mulch)
  • Nursery management and seed saving
  • The importance of biodiversity
  • Home gardens
  • Successional agroforestry and analogue forestry
  • Aquaculture (ecological fish farms)
  • Water management through infiltration ditches
  • Farmer cooperatives
  • Traditional ecological knowledge of the Amazon
  • And much more!Presenting Designs

Marcos reflected that “all the themes had their own working methodology, dynamic group exercises, and practical teamwork. What I had previously only heard in lectures I was now experiencing in practice with examples of things I knew and things I didn’t know. So, my mind was opened more and more each day! We could really see what was possible when doing Permaculture design…Many people [here] don’t like lectures. Many people learn from images [sic. multi-media]. This whole course was done with images and practice in the field. And this, according to me and the others who I spoke to, was a course unlike any they have ever received and unlike they ever imagined. And there were people who have participated in lots of workshops and have never seen this kind of working and teaching methodology. This made me joyful when I heard this.”


Dispersing this Little Seed

It became clear that people wanted more. This was a general introduction to ecological agriculture as practiced in agroecology and permaculture. But the whole point was to get people interested, informed, and exposed to new ways of practicing regenerative methods of farming. It was very encouraging that the participants were proposing the replication of the course and broadcasting of these ideas and practices. They additionally proposed follow-up sessions on propagation techniques, small animal husbandry, and deepening knowledge about social permaculture and the formation of cooperatives. Marcos adds that “there were students from Contamana, Iparia, Masisea…and so this little seed has to get dispersed. We have to become forces to multiply the effect of this information. And to me, this is a great strength and one that we are just discovering now. I felt very proud to be an instructor in this course… I would like to possess all the information presented so that I could deliver it myself, so that we could organize ourselves and teach it more…. RIPA could continue this.” Alianza Arkana has helped RIPA create a social media group and will be putting all the teaching materials online to enable access and to augment with relevant materials as the network grows.

Building a banana circle

A primary goal of this course was to strengthen RIPA and get people talking about starting eco-social cooperatives. Luke expresses that “the longevity of this work hinges upon people being able to harvest the fruits of their own labor and become financially self-reliant. Seed funding has been extremely necessary, but as we move forward and stronger community leadership forms, as people build their experience, skills and ability to achieve their own goals then the initiative will move into a place where few external inputs are required and where change is primarily driven from within.

Balancing Worldviews & Changing the World

Exploring a food forestTeaching Permaculture is basically about shifting worldviews. Grant giving bodies require a Western, linear form of project design and progression, reporting on deliverables and measuring success. The indigenous people we work with operate within a very different worldview. Here at Alianza Arkana, we have to strike a delicate balance between these. During this course, that dynamic tension between worldviews was examined and integrated by the teachers to create a mutually-reinforcing vehicle for learning to happen and targets to be met. Those holding a more western approach facilitated the process while the RIPA teachers delivered the majority of the content in the native language and improvised, encouraged for group discussion, and integrated the learning into the indigenous worldview. Each day this balance became more fluid and watching the Shipibo teachers become more adept at harvesting the group wisdom was truly an insightful and powerful experience.

“To the people who financed this course [British Ecological Society], I want to say that the youth are now taking interest in change. As my teacher Ali Sharif would say “we are going to change the way of the world.” I would think, “how is he going to change the world?” But we take a seedling out of Hopethe nursery and we plant it. Right there, we are changing the world! This kind of multiplier effect needs to start taking hold,” said Marcos.

Luke reflected, “The thing I am most excited about is seeing the Bena Nii team members developing as leaders of RIPA. Seeing them step into a position where they are leveraging their unique experience and skillsets to support mutual-empowerment is really inspiring to me. At Alianza Arkana we see ourselves as friends and allies to the people and ecosystems of the Amazon. Across the board we plan for our obsolescence in the projects we design. That means supporting the emergence of resilient, community-based leadership. I see our role as being like a pioneer organism creating the conditions conducive to those that will make up the next stages of succession. RIPA is now co-visioning those next stages, building their experience, skills, and all that is required to disseminate these regenerative practices for the benefit of the Amazon and her people.”

Many thanks to the British Ecological Society for supporting this course. Additional thanks to Lush Cosmetics, National Geographic, and the International Analogue Forestry Network for making it possible to have Shipibo demonstration sites that open experiential learning pathways for indigenous farmers.

Click here to see more photos from this course.

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Lily Hollister, Saturday, 14 March 2015

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