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Bolivia Diaries: Day 6, Part 1 - Slash and Burn Agriculture in the Amazon

by: Jill Richardson

Tue Oct 26, 2010 at 17:07:32 PM PDT

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In October 2010, I spent 2 weeks in Bolivia learning about their food and agriculture. I ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for out of the trip, including learning why the rainforest is being destroyed, how eco-tourism might save it, how Bolivia fits into the drug trade (and what the US does to try to stop cocaine production), and how global warming has already impacted Bolivia.

Our sixth day was one of the highlights of the entire trip. We visited an indigenous community in the Amazon rainforest to learn about their traditional food and farming. This diary will show how they use slash and burn agriculture (also known as shifting cultivation) to grow their food.

My trip was organized by Global Exchange and Food First. You can find out about future Food Sovereignty tours at the link.

Previous diaries in this series:

Pre-Trip Blogging:

The Trip:

Jill Richardson :: Bolivia Diaries: Day 6, Part 1 - Slash and Burn Agriculture in the Amazon
In the last post, I wrote up an explanation of slash and burn (shifting cultivation) agriculture based on a lecture by agroecologist Daniel Robison. The day after he gave that presentation, he accompanied our group into the rainforest (or jungle, as it is more commonly referred to in Bolivia) to visit the indigenous community of San Miguel del Bala, a Tacana-speaking community that practices slash and burn agriculture. A guide from San Miguel del Bala joined us to give us a tour of his community (including a delightful visit to his home to meet his family, which I will share in another post), and Daniel acted as a translator in more ways than one, translating our guide's words from Spanish to English but also explaining the ecological significance of what we were seeing.

We arrived in the Amazon a few days after the first rains. Those who are responsible about burning wait until a few days after the first rains and then burn the areas they wish to burn. Clearly, many people are not so responsible, as an awful lot of burning took place before we arrived - and before the first rains. Below are a few pictures of areas of forest being burned. Daniel said these are likely examples of responsible burning - given the timing - although the latter two pictures show a burn taking place too close to the banks of the Beni River, which might result in unwanted erosion.


Burning (perhaps too close to the river)

A closer view of the same burn

So what happens after the forest is burned? We saw several examples of areas in various stages of fallow. The picture below shows an area that was slashed and burned a year ago. (Daniel said "Last year this time it would have been a smoking stubble.") Then, the people of San Miguel del Bala planted rice here, which they harvested in March. As you can see, the forest has already started to reclaim the area.

An area that was burned a year ago.

In contrast, here is another area that was burned a year ago. However, it was not left fallow long enough before it was burned. As a result, grasses are dominating the area now.

Another picture of the area burnt last year that wasn't left fallow long enough.

Once an area is burned (around October), they plant rice and cassava and perhaps some fruit trees. They harvest the rice in March. The cassava continues growing for a total of 18 months, thus giving them two crops from one area. While the cassava grows, you can see grasses already beginning to take over the forest floor (in the picture below). In the area where the photo was taken, the rice was already harvested, the cassava was growing, and we also saw pineapple, bananas, cacao, sugarcane, papaya, and pacay (ice cream bean) growing.

Grass growing on the ground in an area burned a year ago.

Next, I've got a picture of an area that has been left fallow for seven years. It is also an area that was planted in rice. The soil here is fairly poor. On better soil, there would be denser vegetation after seven years. The people of San Miguel del Bala plan to let this area remain fallow for a total of 15 to 20 years, because with poor soil, they would not get much of a yield if they slashed and burned it again sooner.

An area with poor soil that has been fallow for 7 years

As I wrote yesterday, slashing and burning forces succession. That means that after an area is burned, there are a few species that come in first, and those create the right conditions for other species. The next set of species enters the area, and those create the right conditions for even more species to grow, and so on, until ultimately the ecosystem reaches a climax state.

Here, there are a few key pioneer species that enter an area soon after it has been burned. One is the cecropia tree, a tree that grows to incredible heights in just two years. Cecropia trees have leaves that can look silvery if you are looking at them from below, and I think the entire tree looks like something that Dr. Seuss might have made up. The leaves are enormous, and when they fall on the forest floor and decompose, they create the right conditions for other species' seeds to germinate.

Cecropia trees, I think

Daniel holding a cecropia tree leaf and pointing up at a cecropia tree above

The cecropia tree Daniel was pointing at, which is nearly impossible to see through the thick vegetation.

One of the other main pioneer species here is the balsa tree, shown below.

Balsa tree

Often tropical soils are very poor, which may come as a surprise given how much life (both in quantity and variety) thrives here. One explanation I've heard is that the frequent rain beating down on the soil tends to leach out the nutrients. So how does so much life burst from such poor soil? The nutrients are usually held in the plants themselves. There is a constant recycling of nutrients with plants dying, decomposing, and other plants taking up the nutrients as they become available. (This also happens as animals eat the plants, poop, and make nutrients available that way.) In slash and burn agriculture, burning releases the nutrients that are held in the vegetation, making them available to whatever crop you wish to grow.

I took the picture below to show an example of how thickly covered the forest floor is with decomposing plant matter. The area that is cleared is the path we were walking on, and I can only imagine that trail maintenance is a constant job for the people of San Miguel del Bala.

A thick layer of litter on the forest floor

Below, you can see a photo I took of an area left fallow for 25 years. It was tall forest 25 years ago, when it was burned, planted in rice, and then left fallow ever since. Our guide told us that his community did not plan to ever burn this area again because it was near the Eco-Lodge they operated for tourists. In exchange for not burning this area, they were given land inside the nearby Madidi National Park that they were allowed to slash and burn.

An area that has been left fallow for 25 years.

Poor soil is only one reason why slash and burn is practiced. The other main reason is that the forest plants move so quickly in reclaiming any area that is burned and cultivated that weeding is nearly impossible. It's far easier to slash, burn, plant, harvest, and then walk away and let the forest take over. One alternative to slash and burn that the people of San Miguel del Bala have tried is using tropical kudzu to crowd out weeds. This is a different species from the type of kudzu that has taken over the American South.

Daniel pointing out tropical kudzu, a possible alternative to slash and burn agriculture.

As noted yesterday and hopefully made clear here, slash and burn agriculture can be done in an ecological way. It works very well with nature instead of treating nature as an obstacle to overcome. However, as you can see here, problems occur when areas are left fallow for too short a time.

Fallow periods tend to be shortened due to population pressures or another other pressure that might leave the group practicing slash and burn agriculture with too little land to leave each area fallow for a long enough time. frequently areas with better soils are left fallow for shorter periods of time, and that isn't a problem because, with better soil, the forest is still able to return after the burn. Also, as we saw while visiting San Miguel del Bala, areas closer to one's home tend to be burned more frequently than areas further away. Aside from the fact that it takes longer to walk to far away areas, there's also the fear that someone may come along and steal your crop if you aren't nearby to protect it.

The long story short is that slash and burn agriculture itself (when practiced properly) is not the problem that is causing rainforest destruction. My diaries over the next several days will show a number of other things happening in the Amazon that are problems resulting in rainforest destruction, as well as a discussion of how to stop these practices.

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Fear of stolen crops... (4.00 / 2)
Aside from the fact that it takes longer to walk to far away areas, there's also the fear that someone may come along and steal your crop if you aren't nearby to protect it.

Does this happen often?  Here and elsewhere?

"Here"... (4.00 / 2)
being there (Bolivia), of course...

[ Parent ]
I don't think so necessarily (4.00 / 2)
but it's still a possibility. Daniel also said that there's kind of a difference seen between taking someone's annual vegetable (that's theft) vs. taking a mango off of someone's tree (that's OK).

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
land ownership (4.00 / 1)
I get the impression that the land is communally owned, or the farming rights are communal. Is that true?

No, I don't believe so (4.00 / 2)
In some cases, I think yes. But I think the core tenet of the 1953 land reform was that everyone should have their own private land that they own.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
theft (4.00 / 1)
I'm reminded that Oregon cattle rustling has received attention in recent years. Also, in episode 20 of the Nature's Harmony farmcast, Rebecca mentions the theft of 300 layers.

I haven't read about crop theft in North America, but I can easily imagine that for a farmer who has home acreage and also farms off-site plots, or for a person who lives in town and farms leased acreage 40 minutes away, crop theft could be a devastating risk.

Oregon cattle rustling... (4.00 / 1)
The term "cattle rustling" might conjure scenes from an old spaghetti western. But in the vast desert range of Oregon, Idaho and Nevada, cattle rustling is a very modern-day problem. In the past three years nearly 2,700 cattle have gone missing in Oregon. Wanted posters are being tacked up in small-town shops. The nation's poor economy isn't helping. Correspondent Anna King explored some of that remote desert country in southeast Oregon.

[ Parent ]
"Trying to find"... (4.00 / 1)
Trying to find these cattle is Malheur County sheriff's deputy Bob Wroten. He and one other law enforcement officer are responsible for regularly patrolling 6,000 square miles of range.

Wroten: "It's just hard to fathom how they get away. They just disappear."

Wroten says cattle theft is a big deal. A cow equals money on four legs. One pregnant mother cow can pay out $1,500. The calf she bears is worth another $500.

[ Parent ]
You know, (4.00 / 3)
they used to hang rustlers. I suppose that'd be too harsh for people nowadays. Personally, I favor shooting on site and let the vultures clean up the mess.

I'm not joking, if I had my druthers, that's what I'd do. I wouldn't hesitate and I wouldn't feel sorry about it.

Rustling is a very real problem, even on this side of the Cascades. Our neighbor lost a calf. Someone told him they had seen his calf hanging in the camp of some homeless people in a private park run by the guy who had the driving range behind us.

When questioned, they said that yes it was his calf, but they had found it dead and (conveniently) outside his fence.

When our other cow had her calf, one day Harold found that someone had cut our fence. Harold just laughed and went to get the tools to repair the fence. That calf was a rogue and no one could catch him unless they roped him off a horse. Sure enough, the calf, momma, and the mare they were in with were all safe and sound. I was more worried about the livestock getting out, but still.

I have a lot of very valuable animals out here, and I do worry about rustling. The problem is that even if someone gets caught, they get a slap on the wrist, while the farmer or rancher gets left twisting in the wind. Hell, at least if there's a disease outbreak and the government comes in an kills everything you own, they'll compensate you. Damned rustlers, you'd have to take them to court, and then try to collect.

Me now, if I couldn't get my money back from them, I'd persue them to the ends of the earth and make their lives absolute hell. If I can't get money, a pound of flesh will do.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
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