‘More-than-sustainable’ cultural forests of Amazonian pasts


More-than-sustainable’ cultural forests of Amazonian pasts: The other side of the anthropocene and the future human habitat.


The anthropocene, despite contested meanings and definitions, tends to imply a ‘negative impact human social metabolism’. On the basis of a nascent action research project on ancestral chakras (traditional forest garden systems) in the Ecuadorian Amazon with Napo Runa (lowland Kichwa) communities, I explore ‘the other side of the anthropocene’ in the praxis of ‘cultural forests’ (Balée 2013). Archaeologists have shown that multiethnic, multilingual complex societies thrived in Amazonia in abundance for 4500 years prior to conquest with a positive impact social metabolism – enriching soil on a large scale, increasing biodiversity and edibility, thus generating a ‘more-than-sustainable’ human habitat. Can we reconnect this past with the lived present and hoped for futures? Arguing that if the human habitat has a future then it can be found in that past, I also ask whether the ‘Buen Vivir state’ offers relevant lines of flight towards such a new paradigm of development.

This is a talk I gave at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019) in a session on ‘Amazonian geographies of the past and the future‘.

It is primarily based on field work done during two fellowships between 2016 and 2019 and draws on my research and collaborations with Amazonian peoples since 2005:

  • Independent Social Research Foundation Fellow, Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford (2016-2017)
    • Title: Between planetary urbanization and thinking forests: a study of socio-ecological change in the Ecuadorian Amazon
  • Marie Curie Research Fellow in the School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester (2017-2019)
    • Title: Transition Friction in the Ecuadorian Amazon: A Green Economy Ethnography

In the talk I touched upon past, present and future forest relations – and considered how the Amazon can teach us something about another side of the anthropocene.

‘More-than-sustainable’ cultural forests of Amazonian pasts: The other side of the anthropocene and the future human habitat:

For most people, and maybe for some of you, the Amazon rainforest is the wilderness, untouched nature, pristine biodiversity. But we now know that this idea is based on almost 500 years of fantasy and denial.

In 1541, shortly after the Conquest of Peru and Ecuador, Francisco de Orellana, leading a violent expedition, was the first European to travel down the Amazon River. His chronicler Carvajal recorded sprawling cities, living in abundance.

Carvajal described the Amazon as a busy waterway which had, on both sides of the river, populous towns with elaborate temples, plazas and fortresses. He recorded cities that extended for miles and described a superabundance of food and marvelled at the “slight amount of work” that all this food required.

At the time his account was written off as hype– the conquesting powers could not conceive of civilised people other than themselves, especially not if they didn’t have to work much for their happiness!

There are of course obvious reasons for the disappearance of these people and their cities in the short time span between the first expeditions: disease, enslavements and warfare eradicated most of the population. It is widely agreed that 90% were killed within 50 years of first contact (not just in the Amazon but in all of the Americas). And, unsurprisingly, cities built with biodegradable materials (wood, palm leaf, forest fibres etc) leave virtually no trace when they fall, especially in the tropics.

During the past 3 decades, archaeologists, geographers, soil scientists, geneticists, and ecologists have presented a complex picture of the Amazon as made up of a diversity of landscapes, many of which have been heavily managed by humans, at least for the last 4500 years. Large parts of the Amazon are not wilderness but in fact a carefully created forest garden. Maybe the most important findings are dark earth and evidence of large-scale civilisations.

Terra preta, or dark earth, is a high grade compost made from burnt wood, leftovers from meals, human wastes. This human-made soil has been found throughout the Amazon, in patches of 1-360 hectares, in some places up to 6 feet deep, thought by some to cover up to 10% of the Amazon (that would be over twice the size of the UK).

In some places dark earth is more than 2ky old and still highly active. It can now be bought as expensive potting soil in Brazil.

In the early 2000s, archaeologists excavated lost, complex cities laid out with astronomical precision. Some of these cities – forming a network of connected settlements with roads, water management, canals, causeways, dark earth and orchards – are over a thousand years old.

Evidence suggests that some of these settlements were multicultural, multilingual urban spaces where a multitude of tribes lived together, and it points to large sedentary civilizations with complex technology.

While there continues to be some debate about the exact geographical extent of the human involvement in the biodiversity of the Amazon, this work has established that the so called ‘virgin forest’ is, to an important degree, anthropogenic: it is a cultural forest, a horticultural artefact, a wild garden, sculptured for millennia through the creation of “black earths” and the selection and promotion of some species and the containment of others.

Or, as the older Napo Runa would have it (the Napo Runa are the indigenous Kichwa people of the Upper Napo River with whom I work in Ecuador), the forest, its flora and fauna, has been maintained since time immemorial through powerful, respectful and intimate relations between humans and non-humans. The lived forest relations of Amazonian peoples constitute a biocultural praxis that has historically given shape to the biodiverse image of the forest that conservationists seek to preserve.

This, I think, has some important implications.

One, it has implications for conservation in the Amazon. There are still maybe 250,000 indigenous Amazonians living across the region, still speaking about 170 different languages. Yet many conservation areas are still designed to keep humans out and protect the forest from interference – a strategy that seems completely misguided in the light of the human significance in the very evolution of forest biodiversity.

It speaks of an imaginary that always pits people against the rest of life, and always separates their habitat from that of other earthly dwellers.

Two, in a world beset by multiple, interconnected crises, with everyone scrambling to find sustainable solutions, the Amazon’s history is encouraging and hopeful: people can enrich their environment, even if their populations are large and their societies are complex. This, really, is a philosophical implication: We might say that particular human-forest relations have enhanced the forest, made it more abundant, more diverse. This is a very different approach and perspective than that of ‘conservation’ or ‘sustainability’ – both words which aim to keep things as they are rather than work together to make things richer.

This perspective of connection and enhancement has to inform, so I argue, collective strategies of reparation and regeneration urgently required to replace the hollow paradigm of sustainable development we currently find ourselves in.

It also provides another angle to debates on the ‘anthropocene’: neither embracing the misanthropy and self-flagellation of humankind’s irrevocable destruction of our own habitat, nor adopting the hypercapitalist technofixes of geoengineering, the ‘more-than-sustainable’ perspective of enhancement or enrichment points to the other side of the anthropocene: the side where we take responsibility for the creation of our habitat – because we realise that our multiple energy and resource-exchanges with the natural world, that is our social metabolism, always produces the world we live in.

With this understanding as a background, I am developing, together with a number of allies, an action research project aimed to revive and revitalise ancestral chakras in the Napo region.

The traditional chakra system is basically a network of several polycultural forest gardens, all producing food, medicine, fibres, building materials, and more for the household. These gardens can be distributed across large territories, located at varying distances from the primary home of the household group (some might be several days’ walk away); and they used to be of great biological diversity (in the past more than 150 different plant species have been documented in individual gardens, today we find often less than 50, which of course is still quite a lot compared to the average UK allotment). These gardens mimic the complexity and structure of the ‘natural’ forest that surrounds them and can have fallow periods of several decades.

The chakra has always been the centre of Kichwa life: the basis for good health, a space where social bonds and community relations were created and maintained – often in mingas (collective work parties) – and where much intergenerational transmission of knowledge unfolded, including a very literal “speaking with the plants”.

The Napo Runa have had – and in some cases still have – affective relationships to the non-human inhabitants of the forest (to animals, plants, rocks, caves, watercourses and their spirit masters) which resemble relationships people usually have with other people.

For the Napo Runa, at least the older generations, animals and plants are not qualitatively different beings from humans. Plants speak and animals can marry humans and have children with them. They have the same subjectivities: they experience the world from an I-point of view. Human people can, do and need to make important alliances with non-human people. They can also upset them and put themselves at danger (for example, they can become prey, be abducted by river or underground spirits). Certain cultivated plants are treated as estranged lovers or difficult children whom one must woe for them to grow well. Wild medicinal plants need to be approached politely before harvest, if they are to heal anyone properly.

Yet, increasingly evicted from the forest, or forced to live on ever smaller parcels of it, Napo Runa appear condemned to develop what they refer to as “the needs of the city”, a term used to highlight the desires and necessities that mysteriously exude from the consumer culture of urban spaces.

Struggling to integrate into consumer society in a dignified manner, as well as struggling to retain a healthy and joyful existence at its margins or on the outside, many Napo Runa are caught in a double bind and urban poverty looms large.

The Tena-Archidona area where my work is focused is growing into one big urban zone that potentially could become more than twice the size of Paris, and if we take into consideration the construction of the Tena-Coca road on the East of the Napo River, we could be looking at an area of potential urban and peri-urban development that is 100 times the size of Paris.

This appearance of tarmac, steel and concrete – and fires which have been hard to ignore over the last few weeks – does not only spell the disappearance of trees and the forest, but also, in important ways, the disappearance of the knowledge and power of forest peoples.

Consider these quotes from a conversation with Fidel Andi, a Napo Runa yachak (Shaman and healer). This conversation took place in 2007:

“It’s not enough to know which plants heal. You need to have the knowledge to make them heal.”

This knowledge is a kind of spiritual power, an ability rather than a repository of information.

“Every powerful place gives us knowledge. […] There are powerful places with much energy everywhere in the forest, special places. My grandfather took me to some of them. Every healer has knowledge from these places, from rivers, from waterfalls, from big rocks, from caves, from the hills. But now […] The contamination finishes these places. You go to them and there is no energy. […] There where the contamination arrives, the energies disappear.”

And we can add to that: where the forest disappears, so do the opportunities to receive the energies that build this power and make the healer.

A collaborative, participatory action research project, we hope, may go some way towards revalorizing ancestral practices in a time when all of us urgently need visions for alternative futures to strive for.

There are two things I want to point out about our vision for such a project.

One: Even though I am acutely aware of the economic hardships which most Napo Runa find themselves in, I am also very aware of the conflicts, inequalities, and the change in values which greater money flows bring. This means that the project we are envisioning aims to rebuild ancestral, highly diverse chakras not with a view to improve local incomes (however important this is), but with a view to foment food sovereignty and make autonomous subsistence and health viable again.

Secondly, I want to share some words, which come I believe from the Australian Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson. They go something like this:

“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

I don’t know about you, but I feel trapped in this mode of living, which has given us buildings like this, made of concrete, metals and toxic glues, technology like this, made with rare earth minerals the mining of which contaminates landscapes and displaces and dispossesses forest people all over the world.

I work in solidarity with the Napo Runa not because I want to give something back for all the convenience and benefit I am able to enjoy at their expense (certain though this is), but because all the convenience and benefit keeps me myself imprisoned, and I see a world of forest gardens as a form of liberation.