The Amazon as horticultural artefact and why it matters

This is a Lightning Talk I was invited to give at ‘Science Uncovered‘:

Friday 28 September is European Researcher’s night, and for the fourth time Manchester Museum will be hosting Science Uncovered Manchester – a special late opening showcasing Manchester’s finest researchers and their work for an adult audience. There’ll be research on show, music, drinks and a lively atmosphere. Our participation in Science Uncovered event is funded by the Natural History Museum, who’ve hosted this event successfully for several years in London and Tring. European Researcher’s Night is a Europe wide initiative, in which thousands of researchers all across Europe meet the public and share their work in a social setting.

In the talk I briefly touch on subjects that have been given more attention in ‘More-than-sustainable’ cultural forests of Amazonian pasts, Biosocialism for the Amazon? Ikiam, the state and subsistence struggles in postneoliberal Ecuador and Awakkuna: Knitting for conservation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In a recent article on the pandemic in the Amazon, we why these things still matter today: Pandemic in the Amazon.

The Amazon as horticultural artefact and why it matters

5 minutes

1. Most people know of the Amazon rainforest in South America, many know that it is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, representing over half of the remaining rainforests on the planet. It covers 5.5 million square kilometres (which is 17x the size of the UK and Ireland together) and probably produces 20% of the world’s oxygen.

For most people, the Amazon rainforest is THE wilderness, untouched nature, pristine biodiversity.

2. 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.

Carvajal wrote that, in one village, they found enough meat and fish and cassava bread “to feed … a thousand men for a year.” Turkeys, ducks, parrots and large turtles were raised in the villages by the thousands. Fish were abundant. Turtle and cayman eggs were eaten. Wild rice and water lily seeds and tubers were harvested. Carvajal added that “what is more amazing is the slight amount of work that all these things require.”

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

When the second European expedition down the Amazon River was not able to confirm the sightings, Carvajal’s reports were decried as figment of his imagination.

But there are obvious reasons for the disappearance of these people and their cities: disease, enslavements and warfare decimated the population. It is widely agreed that 90% were killed within 50 years of first contact in all of the Americas.

And of course, cities built with biodegradable materials (wood, palm leaf, forest fibres etc) leave virtually no trace when they fall, especially in the fast-growing vegetation of the tropics.

4. During the past 3 decades, archaeologists, geographers, soil scientists, geneticists, and ecologists have shown that 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 large areas with huge amounts of fruit trees.

Dark earth/ terra preta

Terra preta, is basically a high grade compost made from people’s garbage—burnt wood, leftovers from meals, human wastes. This human-made soil has been found throughout the Amazon, in patches of 1-360 hectares (that’s over 500 football fields!), thought by some to cover up to 10% of the Amazon (that would be twice the size of Britain).

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

Amazonian cities

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, 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.

All this work has established that the Amazon is a cultural forest, a horticultural artefact, a wild garden.

5. But why does this matter you might ask.

There are at least two reasons: 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. But most conservation areas are still designed to keep humans out and protect the forest from interference. But if we want to conserve the Amazon, now that we know that it is basically one big forest garden, it seems rather foolish to thrown out the gardeners.

Two, in a world beset by multiple, interconnected crises (ecological, economic, energy, food, water?), with everyone scrambling to find sustainable solutions, the Amazon’s history is encouraging: people can enrich their environment, even if their populations are large and their societies are complex. So let’s make the earth, once again, a forest garden!