Clara Peña Venegas

Clara is a Colombian microbiologist. She obtained her BSc in Microbiology in 1990 from the Universidad de los Andes (Colombia) and her MSc in Microbiology of Tropical Soils in 1999 from the State University of New York (USA). She works as associated researcher at the Instituto Amazonico de Investigaciones Cientificas – SINCHI. She is part of the Intervention and Sustainability Research Group. Her main interest is to understand changes in soil characteristics related to human interventions to develop more sustainable alternatives of production in the Amazon region. Clara obtained her PhD. from Wageningen University, within the Terra Preta Program, on July 2015.

Short description of PhD thesis

Scholars had questioned how dense pre-Columbian settlements were fed due to floodplains limitations and broad unfertile uplands. Two strategies are proposed to explain how Pre-Columbian inhabitants overcame those restrictions: The improvement of natural soil fertility creating Terra Preta (TP) and the adaptation of staple crops to different soil conditions. If TP was the key to enlarge food production, it must include staple and subsidiary crops. Amazonian native people diet was and is based on manioc, a staple crop that grows well on unfertile soils because of the symbiosis it establishes with arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi which allows it to cope with soil nutrient limitations. When TP became an important resource for production, this staple crop adapted its AM dependence to grow on fertile soils. This explanation fits to archaeological and historical evidence, explaining properly how large populations were nourished.

Actual production models are unsustainable and the direct cause of Amazon deforestation. It is suggested that more fertile soils will allow a more sustainable production and the reduction of deforestation. Understanding how TP was created and used, will provide cues for future Amazonian management. Actual recreation of TP is limited to archaeological information which explains little about pre-Columbian practices. Traditional knowledge of Amazonian inhabitants could be useful. Previous studies were done with “caboclos” with fragile ties with pre-Columbian ethnic groups. The proposal aims to search the background of contemporary Amazonian indigenous people looking for evidence about TP creation and plant-crop coevolution to explain the maintenance of highly dense Amazon pre-Columbian settlements.

Recent publications

Peña-Venegas, C. P., Stomph, T. J., Verschoor, G., Echeverri, J. A., Struik, P. C. (2016). Classification and use of natural and anthropogenic soils by indigenous communities of the upper Amazon region of Colombia. Human Ecology 44:1-15.

Peña-Venegas, C., Stomph, T., Verschoor, G., Lopez-Lavalle, L., and Struik, P. (2014). Differences in manioc diversity among five ethnic groups of the Colombian Amazon. Diversity 6: 792-826.

Peña-Venegas, C., Acosta, L. E., Verschoor, G., Logreira-Bruitrago, C. E., and Agudelo, E. (2014). Mining threats to ancient anthropogenic soils and other resources associated to indigenous food security in the middle Caqueta River, Colombia. Journal of Earth Science and Engineering 4: 372-377.

Peña-Venegas C.P. 2010. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in the Amazon region. In: Mycorrhiza: Occurrence in natural and restored environments. Nova publishers.

Cardona G. I., Peña-Venegas C. P., Ruiz-García M. 2009. Communities of Actynomicetes fungy in three vegetation types of the Colombian Amazon: abundance, morphotypes and the 16s rDNA gene Revista de Biología Tropical 57: 1119-1139.

Mantilla-Paredes A. J., Cardona G. I., Peña-Venegas C. P., Murcia U., Rodríguez M., Zambrano M.M. 2009. Distribution of potentially nitrogen-fixing bacteria and its relationship with physicochemical parameters in soils with three vegetation types in the southern Colombian Amazon region. Revista de Biologia Tropical 57: 915-927.

Cardona G., Peña-Venegas C.P., Arcos A. 2008. Occurrence of arbuscular micorrhizae fungi in red pepper (Capsicum sp.) in the Amazonian region of Colombia. Revista Agronomía Colombiana 26:459-470.

Peña-Venegas C. P., Cardona G. I., Arguelles J. H., Arcos A. L. 2007. Micorrizas arbusculares del sur de la Amazonia colombiana y su relación con algunos factores fisicoquímicos y biologicos del suelo. Acta Amazónica 37: 327-336.