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Forest Gardening and BioCultural Diversity

Published: September 3, 2008, Author: MHirch

Global biological and cultural diversity are essential to the Earth’s health, and ancient native “forest gardening” practices are of major importance to promoting such diversity.

The Kuikuro people of the Upper Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon are apparently the descendants of a remarkable civilization that built a complex of hamlets and villages around a jungle economy. Sustained by a combination of “forest gardening” and a mil-pa system of growing foods in cycles of 2 years of cultivation and eight years of fallow soils the estimated 50,000 people living in the ancient cultural complex appears to have prospered in the jungle for at least 400 years from 1250 to 1650. Researchers from Brazil and the United States led by Michael Heckenberger from the University of Florida worked with the Kuikuro, learning from them about the 350-750 year old ruins and the “terra petra” (black soil) that served as a gigantic carbon sink. The intimate relationship between the Kuikuro ancestors and the deep jungle ensured the diversity of the tropical forest while maximizing the forest as a source of animal and plant foods and medicines. Cultural practices evolved over time created a co-dependency between the people and the environment where the interaction ensured prosperity for the large population and balanced continuity for the jungle.

The Kuikuro culture continues to contain the knowledge embedded by the ancient experiences of Kuikuro ancestors. The intimate relationship between the people and the tropical forest produces beneficial results for the Kuikuro and also all of humanity since the jungle plays such a profound role in the carbon cycle and the climate throughout the world. The Kuikuro and the jungle together are essential to human survival.

The presence of disease infested Spanish conquistadors introduced epidemics of measles and influenza for which the ancient peoples had no immunity. Their numbers were swiftly reduced without Spanish presence…they merely passed by the heavily populated regions of the upper Amazon.

Forest Gardening employs companion planting and “intercropping” where human interventions are aimed at selecting plants that produce useful foods, medicines and promote animal presence. The Passamaquoddy and Maliseet are peoples descended from complex societies living along the coast and interior of what is now the state of Maine in the US and New Brunswick in Canada. These peoples practiced Forest Gardening so successfully that their forest was manicured and orderly. Their efforts made possible large numbers of communities all along the coast–noted with surprise by early English explorers in the early 1600s.

When the English returned some years later, the formerly manicured forests and sizable native communities had completely changed. The forest was overgrown and the people were gone. Disease had rubbed this society out. Without the people, the forest went wild again.

Slash and burn or slash and char techniques have long been used by native peoples throughout the world to clear underbrush from forests–reducing their tendency to become tinder boxes in hot summers; and used to selective grow foods, medicines and improve animal presence in forests.

All of these approaches to human/environment codependency reflect the biological and cultural diversity of which human beings are an intimate part. The Quinault, Quileute, Humptulips, Copalis and other peoples along the Washington State coast in the United States, and the Nuxalk and Wuikinuxv are among the diverse nations in the world who live a culture that echoes the Passamaquoddy and the Kuikoro.

Forest Gardening ensures biological and cultural diversity while ensuring the presence of life sustaining plants and animals that contribute to environmental and climate balance. Nations are essential to biocultural diversity.

A global policy on BioCultural Diversity should seek to protect the status of native peoples whose cultures ensure the intimate relationship between the people and the environment. Native peoples must not be disturbed in their use and control over the world’s remaining biological diversity. Removal of peoples from these vital lands creates a cascade of environmental breakdown that threatens human survival and global climate stability. This may be the most important policy that states’ governments could agree to include in the new Copenhagen Protocols that in 2012 will replace the Kyoto protocols.

(c) 2008 Center for World Indigenous Studies

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