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Terra preta de índio, Global Climate Change

Published: September 20, 2007, Author: MHirch

Shortly before Spanish, Dutch and English sponsored ships arrived on the western hemisphere’s shores more than five hundred years ago, infectious disease rubbed out between 50% and 95% of the human inhabitants. Jerad Diamond’s sweeping effort to explain (in his book Guns, Germs and Steel) how it was possible for a few conquistadors to subdue the Mexica and the Inkas  pointed to the dominant role germs–alien bacteria and viruses–played. His point was that Europeans weren’t in any way superior to populations in the western hemisphere. Their germs preceded them and like wildfires decimated whole nations generations before European boots touched the soil.

Not only did germs play the dominant role in the destruction of nations throughout the western hemisphere, the consequences for all of human kind has been a disaster from which recovery is apparently tenuous at best. Charles Mann’s well written book entitled 1491 (2005, 2006 Vintage Books) reveals the pre-European settlement story of complex and rich civilizations that mostly figured out how to manage the environment without destroying the environment.  Mann’s narrative describes the hemisphere’s original peoples with huge populations far greater than 15th century Europe with cities five – ten times the size of Europe’s London or Paris. 1491 describes a world where forests in Atlantic Coastal Canada and the United States, jungles in the Amazon and dry areas of Yucatan were exploited intensively, but in a manner compatible with the environment. Not all societies were particularly good managers. Some like those on the Mississippi River, in the souther Yucatan and in what is now southern Peru failed and their societies collapsed.

The greatest loss from disease, other than the people themselves, is the knowledge hemispheric civilizations developed over several thousand years.  That knowledge could benefit human kind now. An example of lost knowledge that could benefit human kind now is given the modern name of terra preta–the dark soil of the upper Amazon created by ancient occupants of the River. Terra preta is rich soil that, according to Mann, was developed more than 2000 years ago and is responsible for the development of large parts of the Amazon jungle.  That’s right! Jungle we think of is actually a product of human management.

One of the most startling aspects of terra preta is its effectiveness as a method of carbon sequestration–a concern of great importance to scientists, environmentalists and politicians interested in the reduction of carbon emissions and the prevention of ecologic collapse from global climate change.  Peoples living in the western hemisphere long before Europeans arrived had developed a method for reclaiming carbon for the soil while exploiting the forest.  The most important point is that the soil reclaims more carbon than is generated in the exploitation of the forest. A healthy balance between carbon emissions and carbon sequestration was achieved in the Amazon jungle, but introduced diseases killed the people who know about how to produce terra preta. Modern scientists are generally mystified about how terra preta is made (it contains pottery chards, charcoal, organic matter and is able to sustain high levels of productivity over centuries).  Terra preta increases plant productivity enormously while retaining fertility.

There are numerous examples of knowledge like that which produced terra preta either lost or hidden still in native communities.

Fourth World nations are the “wild seed of humanity” the preservation of which is essential to the survival of human kind. No, native peoples in the hemisphere are not Rouseau’s “Noble Savage.” Romantic notions about lost tribes and “natural environmentalism” are nonsense. Fourth World peoples have among them inventors and creative problem solvers. They are human beings with failings and achievements.

Agricultural methods developed long ago by peoples in Mexico, Peru, the Atlantic coast of the United States, the south west and Mississippi regions and forest and fisheries management in the Pacific Northwest should serve human kind now. Terra preta is clearly an achievement the understanding of which is probably essential for the resolution of global climate change. We cannot afford to lose any more knowledge when global problems demand answers from past successes.

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