I can’t imagine a better way to be lost on the Amazon than in the company of 35 international permaculture delegates on a boat with a week’s supply of food on board. Yes, the pilot got us lost several times during the journey from Manaus to the permaculture project near Boa Vista, so what should have been a 17 hour journey extended to just over 24 hours. He managed to get lost a few more times on the return journey which ended up taking 38 hours.
The Amazon is an easy place to lose one’s way, especially at the tail end of the wet season when the rivers flow is at its peak. The water level rises by up to 10 meters which can represent up to 100m or more of shoreline under water, creating a literal maze of large and small islands, floating islands of water weeds and grasses, and tendrils of land spits punctuating the river’s spread which extends up to 100km wide in places. The mind has difficulty comprehending the vastness of the river system and sheer volume of water it carries.
The term Amazon has always evoked images of endless expanses of ancient tropical forest systems but when one is actually in the heart of the Amazon travelling the world’s greatest river one realises that the whole system, including forest, is predominantly about water. This first became apparent flying into Manaus and observing the maze of waterways and massive volume of billowing clouds rising from the forests.
Recent research identifying the isotopes of raindrops have traced Amazon-generated clouds travelling up along the east coast of North America, over Greenland, to bring rains to Sweden and Northern Europe.
The land and forest inundation during the annual wet season results in huge expanses of forest standing in water for months on end providing food and breeding habitat for the diverse fish species and wildlife of the river system. Several keen birdwatchers in our group identified over 40 species of birds in a few hours, including an iconic tucan flying directly over head. Shouts of amazement accompanied every sighting of the freshwater Amazonian dolphins including several of the exquisite pink dolphins, and a lone sea-cow head bobbing up by a floating meadow.
The entire shoreline is dotted with small villages, isolated houses and small farms. The Amazon supports a surprisingly large population and the pressures of inappropriate landuse and development are taking their toll. One of the key problems arises from clearing the riparian forest areas for grazing land which leaves the soil vulnerable to erosion during the wet and reduces critical habitat and food supplies for the hundreds of aquatic fish, birds and animals that depend on the riparian forest systems for survival.
It was heartening to also see examples of sustainable traditional farming and village settlement in between the areas of cancerous grassland. The sustainable systems are based on maintaining perennial vegetation to the banks of the river—a mix of natural and managed production forests of fruit and nut trees, palms, cocoa shrubs, legumes and small plots of cassava in between. Over 100 species of palm trees occur in the Amazon, all bearing productive yields of food, oil and fibre.
Fifteen years ago Ali Sharif commenced the Amazonian Permaculture Centre in Manaus, capital of the Amazonas state in Brazil, the site was an abandoned agriculture training centre of compacted soil on the city’s fringe and now functions as a permaculture research and development, training and support centre for numerous projects with rural communities in the central Amazonian region. Food forests, organic cropping systems, water harvest and treatment techniques and a myriad of animal production systems have been trialled and developed at the centre. Most impressive are the freshwater aquaculture research systems where over 100 species of Amazonian freshwater fish are being trialled for hatchery and fish farming potential.
Ali gave an historic perspective on the Amazon and the issues facing the ecosystems and people living within them. His centre is working with numerous communities along the central Amazon River region and our boat journey took us to spend 3 days based at one of these outposts and explore some of the nearby village projects.
The key areas of focus with the village projects are health and appropriate livelihood. One of the greatest financial burdens for river communities is paying for medication for disease, and 40% of disease is directly related to water-borne illnesses arising from e-coli contamination from human waste. The frontline defence for addressing these issues is installing rainwater collection tanks for drinking water and dry composting toilets to isolate human waste from ground, surface and river water supplies. Women’s programs focus on improving nutrition by increasing the range of vegetables grown for domestic consumption and establishing herb gardens as living apothecaries in the villages, together with providing training in their use and application.
The most successful micro-enterprise development has been the beekeeping program. The native stingless bees bring high returns for low capital establishment costs and low work input. The honey is particularly highly prised for medicinal purposes and a small village enterprise of several dozen little hives can produce up to 100 kg of valuable honey annually, earning more than any other crop. The small beehives stand on permanent poles dotted under the fruit trees and food forests surrounding the village. A cooperative of village beekeepers manages collective marketing.
The benefits of honey production as a high-value enterprise is a key strategy to reduce the need (or temptation) to clear land for cattle grazing, and as an activity compatible with maintaining native tree and perennial plant production systems for both subsistence and small commercial crops. Improving small livestock production for protein foods is another important focus of the village programs, mainly with poultry and pigs integrated with food forest production, and eventually the introduction of aquaculture ponds.
The awe inspired by travelling a short section of the Amazon is something words cannot convey, and the experience of a tropical sunset and full moon rising over it’s expansive waters is a memory imprinted in my consciousness for life.
Robyn Francis, June 2007