Overstory #109 - Cultural landscapes
Traditionally, Amazonian Indians have been thought of as merely exploiters of their environments - not as conservers, manipulators and managers of natural resources (e.g. Meggers 1996). Researchers are finding, however, that presumed 'natural' ecological systems may, in fact, be products of human manipulation (Alcorn 1981, 1989; Anderson and Posey 1985; Balée 1989a, 1997; Balée and Gély 1989; Clement 1989; Denevan and Padoch 1988; Frickel 1959; Roosevelt 1994; Sponsel 1995; Sponsel, Headland and Bailey 1996; and others). Likewise, old agricultural fallows reflect genetic selection and human enhanced species diversity (Anderson 1990; Balée 1989b; Denevan and Padoch 1988; Irvine 1989; Redford and Padoch 1992).
The Kayapó Indians of the Middle Xingu Valley, Brazil, provide a good example of how scientific assumptions of 'natural' landscapes have hidden the complexity and potential of local management practices to modify ecosystems. The modern Kayapó population is still under 5,000, but pre-contact populations were many times larger and presumably had even greater impacts on the vast region they exploited (Posey 1994). They live in an ecologically diverse region that comprises nearly 4 million hectares of reserva indigena in the states of Para and Mato Grosso. Ethnohistorical research with the Kayapó Indians shows that contact with European diseases came via trade routes and preceded face-to-face contact with colonizers. Epidemics led to intra-group fighting, fission and dispersal of sub-groups which carried with them seeds and cuttings to propagate their foods, medicines and other resources (Posey 1987).
Human modified environments
A form of 'nomadic agriculture' developed, based on the exploitation of non-domesticated resources (NDRs) intentionally concentrated in human modified environments near trail sides, abandoned villages and at camp sites (Posey 1985). Agricultural practices also spread, along with techniques for the management of old fields to enhance the availability of wildlife and useful plants. During times of warfare, the Kayapó could abandon their agricultural plots and survive on non-domesticated species concentrated at trail sides, former village sites, forest openings and ancient fields.
Agricultural plots were engineered to develop into productive agroforestry reserves dominated by NDR species, thereby allowing the Kayapó to oscillate between (or blend together) agriculture and gathering. Such patterns appear to have been widespread in the lowland tropics and defy the traditional dichotomies of wild vs. domesticated species, hunter-gatherers vs. agriculturalists, and agriculture vs. agroforestry. Even today, over 76 percent of the useful plant species collected to date are not 'domesticated', nor can they be considered 'wild' (Posey 1997; Roosevelt 1994). (I suspect that as a more complete floral inventory is completed, this percentage will approach 98 percent.)
Nowhere is this more evident than in the formation of 'islands' of forest, or apêtê, in the campocerrado (savannah). The Kayapó initiate and simulate the formation of forest patches through the careful manipulation of micro-environmental factors, knowledge of soil and plant characteristics, and intentional concentration of useful species into limited plots. Although most apêtê are small (under 10ha), elders reported plant varieties in a 1ha plot as having been introduced by villagers from an area the size of Western Europe (Anderson and Posey 1989).
The principle elements of Kayapó management have been previously described in some detail (Posey 1983, 1985, 1987, 1995, 1997) and include:
- overlapping and interrelated ecological categories that form continua;
- modification of 'natural ecosystems' to create ecotones;
- emphasis on long-term ecotone utilization (chronological ecotones);
- concentration on non-domesticated resources;
- transfer of useful plant varieties between similar ecological zones, and
- integration of agricultural cycles with forest management cycles
Resource management continuum
Several options are possible for representing indigenous resource management models. The most inclusive and descriptive representation of the Kayapó system places savannah or grasslands (kapôt) at one end of a continuum as the 'focal type' (example that most typifies the category) and forests (bà) at the other end (opposite focal type). Kapôt types with more forest elements would be represented to the right of the diagram, while bà types that are more open and with grassy elements would lie on the continuum diagram to the left, or toward the savannah pole.
This would put apêtê at the conceptual centre of the continuum, since forest elements are introduced into the savannah to produce these anthropogenic zones. Agricultural plots (puru) also lie conceptually near the centre of the continuum, because sun-tolerant vegetation is introduced into managed forest openings. Apêtê can be thought of as the conceptual inverse of puru: the former concentrates resources in the forest using sun-tolerant species, while the other does the same in the savannah using forest species.
Even though ecological types like high forest (bà tyk) or transitional forest (bà kamrek) are securely located at the forest pole, they are not uniform in their composition. All forests have edges (kà), margins (kôt), and openings caused by fallen - or felled - trees (bà krê-ti) which provide zones of transition between different conceptual zones. Thus, a plant that likes the margins of a high forest might also grow well at the margin of a field (puru-ka or purukôt) or in an apêtê. A plant that likes light gaps provided by forest openings might also like forest edges (bà-kà or bà-kôt) or old fields (puru-tum or ibê-tum). Plants from open forest types or forest edges can predictably proliferate along edges of trails or thicker zones of apêtê. Using this logic, the Kayapó can transfer biogenetic materials between matching micro-zones so that ecological types are interrelated by their similarities rather than isolated by their differences. These interfaces can be considered ecotones, which become the uniting elements of the overall system.
There is another interesting dimension to the model that appears when looking diachronically (temporally or historically) across the system. Agricultural clearings are initially planted with rapidly growing domesticates, but almost immediately thereafter are managed for secondary forest and NDR species. This management depends upon planting and transplanting, removal of some varieties, allowing others to grow, encouraging some with fertilizer and ash, and preparing and working the soils to favour useful species.
Management aims to provide long-term supplies of building materials, ceremonial objects, medicinals and other useful products, as well as food for humans and animals. The old fields (puru tum) are at least as useful to the Kayapó as agricultural plots or mature forest. A high percentage (an initial estimate is 85 percent) of plants in this transition have single or multiple uses. When the secondary forest grows too high to provide undergrowth as food for animals (and hunting also becomes difficult), then the large trees are felled to create more hospitable conditions for management and/or reinitiation of the agricultural cycle. Likewise, apêtê are managed to maximize useful species in all stages of the forest succession. When their centres become dark and unproductive, openings (irã) are created which allow light to once again penetrate the forest and initiate a new cycle.
The Kayapó resource management system is based on the conservation and use of transitional forests in which agriculture is only a useful (albeit critical) phase in the long-term process. Apêtê exhibit parallel transitional sequences in the campocerrado and depend almost exclusively on non-domesticated resources. The degree to which genetic materials are transferred between similar micro-zones of different ecological types points to how the Kayapó exploit ecotones that host the highest diversity of plants. Management over time can be thought of as management of chronological ecotones, since management cycles aim to maintain the maximum amount of diversity and the greatest number of ecotones.
The Kayapó model illustrates how previously assumed 'natural' ecosystems in Amazonia have been consciously modified by indigenous residents through time. The degree to which this has taken place has yet to be quantified, but Kayapó 'forest islands' data show concentrations of plant varieties from a vast geographic area. This case underlines the necessity for historical studies to understand the long-term effects of management of cultural and anthropogenic landscapes. Above all, it exposes the inadequacies of our scientific, educational and political institutions which separate agriculture from forestry and ignore the importance of non-domesticated resources.
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This edition of The Overstory is excerpted with the kind permission of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) from:
Posey, D.A. (Ed). 1999. Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity. Intermediate Technology Publications, London on behalf of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The original book and this article is © 1999 United Nations Environment Programme, P.O. Box 30552 Nairobi, Kenya.
The original title, Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, is available from: ITDG Publications 103/105 Southampton Row, London WC1B 4HH, UK Tel: +44 202 7436 9761; Fax: +44 020 7436 2013 e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org; web: itdgpublishing.org.uk
About the author
Darrell Posey was Titled Researcher (Pesquisador Titular) for the Brazilian National Council for Science and Technology at the Goeldi Museum, Belem, Brazil. He was also Director of the Programme for Traditional Resource Rights of the Oxford Centre for the Environment, Ethics and Society at Mansfield College, and an Associate Fellow of Linacre College, University of Oxford. Posey was the recipient of the first "Chico Mendes Award for Outstanding Bravery in Defense of the Environment" and one of the recipients of the United Nations "Global 500" Award for Environmental Achievement. His main fieldwork was on the ethnobiology of the Kayapo Indians of the Brazilian Amazon. He published over 184 scientific articles and 8 books, which include Beyond Intellectual Property: Towards Traditional Resource Rights for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IDRC, Ottawa,1996; with Graham Dutfield); and Indigenous Peoples and Sustainability (IUCN and Earthscan; 1996). Darrell Posey passed away in May 2001, and is greatly missed.
Related editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #105--Complex Agroforests
- The Overstory #82--Indigenous Knowledge
- The Overstory #76--Ethnoforestry
- The Overstory #72--Microenvironments (Part 2)
- The Overstory #64--Tropical Homegardens
- The Overstory #51--Protecting and Expanding Traditional Agroforests in the Pacific
- The Overstory #49--Traditional Pacific Island Agroforestry Systems
- The Overstory #34--Forest Islands (Kayapo Example)
- The Overstory #31--Tree Domestication
- The Overstory #15--Cultivating Connections with Other Farmers
- The Overstory #9--Observation