Saving the Amazon with Raised-Field Farming

At a northern point of South America’s vast Amazon rainforest, where the lush jungle landscape meets the sparse savanna region, researchers have found evidence of a unique farming technique employed by the indigenous peoples centuries ago.  Long before the arrival of the Europeans to the continent, bringing with them their destructive slash and burn methods of clearing fields, ancient peoples utilized what is now commonly referred to as raised-field farming.   

For raised-field farming to work, small mounds of dirt would be erected along the outside edge of the forest in order to best form a border between forest and clearer land.  These mounds would serve a dual purpose, providing both an elevated farming area and a type of protection for areas typically known for their floods and droughts.  While the mounds of earth were feats of engineering prowess in themselves, they provided the land and the people that utilized it with a higher quality of harvest and soil.  Set high above the jungle floor, the mounds were perfect for capturing rain and draining it easily to the ground below – keeping the soil in the mounds moist and constantly aerated.

Now compare this with the more invasive slash and burn agriculture and it becomes a wonder why the more eco-friendly method ever disappeared.  While the burning method proves exceptionally successful in clearing large areas of land in order to make way for new crops and harvests, it does little for the land that it touches.  After being set aflame, the land loses valuable minerals and nutrients, causing much more than superficial damage and effectively ruining the internal foundation of the land.

Working at the northern edge of the Amazon in French Guiana, archeologist Jose Iriarte and his team question the likelihood that such a method of raised-field farming could be used today.  His guess is that not only can it be applied in modern times, but it should.  “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,” Iriarte explained.  “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.”

What this means for the Amazon now could be a breakthrough in conserving this precious resource.  Covering approximately 2.5 million square miles of landscape, the Amazon contains more than half of what is left of the planet’s rainforests.  The densely forested land is home to about one-tenth of the world’s known species, and sits atop almost 100 billion tons of the world’s stored carbon. Eliminating this forest (or parts of it) would be eliminating the buffer that keeps that carbon load suppressed. If the carbon were to be released than the damaging effects of global would speed up rapidly: putting the planet at higher risk.

By applying methods like the raised-field farming method, it is hoped that the state of the Amazon gains precedence in the global mindset and practices are put into place that would focus on this lands preservation.  “With global warming, it is more important than ever before that we find a sustainable way to manage savannas,” said Iriarte.  “The clues to how to achieve this could be in the 2,000 years of history that we have unlocked.”


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