Clara Patricia Peña Venegas (2015). People, soil and manioc interactions in the upper Amazon region. PhD thesis, Wageningen University, The Netherlands, with summaries in English and Dutch, 210 pp.
The presence of anthropogenic soils, or Amazonian Dark Earths (ADE), fuels the debate about how pristine the Amazon ecosystem actually is, and about the degree to which humans affected Amazonian diversity in the past. Most upland soils of the Amazon region are very acid, highly weathered, and have a limited nutrient holding capacity; together, these characteristics limit permanent or intensive agriculture. Várzeas or floodplains that are periodically enriched with Andean sediments carried and deposited by rivers that cross the Amazon Basin, are moderately fertile but experience periodic floods that limit agriculture to crops able to produce in a short time. ADE patches in uplands usually are more fertile than non-anthropogenic uplands, providing a better environment for agriculture. Most studies about how people manage a broad portfolio of natural and anthropogenic soils come from non-indigenous farmers of Brazil. There is limited information about how indigenous people use a broad soil portfolio, and how this affects the diversity of their staple crop, manioc. With the aim to contribute to the understanding of the role of ADE in indigenous food production, as compared with other soils, and in order to provide information about how indigenous people use and create diversity in Amazonia, research was carried out among five different ethnic groups living in two locations of the Colombian Amazon.
Several social and natural science methods were used during the study. These included ethnography, participant observation, structured and un-structured interviews, sampling of soil and manioc landraces, standardized protocols for the quantification of soil physical and chemical variables, and molecular techniques to assess genetic diversity of manioc and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.
Results indicate that ADE patches from the Middle Caquetá region of Colombia are not contrastingly more fertile than surrounding, non-anthropogenic upland soils, except for higher levels of available phosphorus in ADE. Indigenous farmers from the Middle Caquetá region do not use ADE more frequently or more intensively than non-ADE uplands. The swidden agriculture practiced on ADE and on non-ADE uplands is similar. Although ADE patches were not specifically important for swiddens and therefore relatively unimportant for the production of manioc. They were important as sites for indigenous settlements and for maintaining agroforestry systems with native and exotic species that do not grow in soils with low available phosphorus. Várzeas were also used for agriculture, whether farmers had access to ADE or not. Differences occurred between locations in the type of floodplains selected and the way they were cultivated. Those differences were not related to differences in soil conditions but were associated with the cultural traditions of the different ethnic groups who cultivate low floodplains, as well as labor availability when organizing collective work (mingas) to harvest floodplains.
Manioc diversity among indigenous communities was not predominantly related with differences in soil types. Complete manioc stocks were cultivated equally on ADE, non-ADE uplands or várzeas. One issue that could be related with this non-specificity in manioc-soil combinations was the similar arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi diversity of soils and the high number of arbuscular mycorrhizal symbionts associated to manioc roots; these were shown to be independent from the physicochemical composition of the soil or the manioc landrace. Differences in the diversity of manioc stocks among ethnic groups were predominantly related to cultural values attached to different manioc landraces.
This study of indigenous agriculture in environments with natural and anthropogenic soils indicates that people have had an important role in transforming the Amazonian ecosystem through agriculture, with consequences on forest composition and forest dynamics. Pre-Columbian people contributed to this by creating an additional soil- the Amazonian Dark Earths. Although ADE are not presently considered to play a major role in indigenous food production, indigenous people believe that ADE have had an important role in the management of the first maniocs cultivated by their ancestors. The domestication of manioc and the creation and maintenance of hundreds of different landraces by indigenous people contributed, and still contributes, to the region’s plant diversity.