Permaculture: a path toward a more sustainable Amazon?

An Eco-Ola permaculture plot with yuca, beans, sacha inchi, bananas, charapitas, herba luisa, and moringa in the Peruvian Amazon.

Communities living in and around tropical forests remain highly dependent on forest products, including nuts, resins, fruit and vegetables, oils, and medicinal plants. But relatively few of these products have been successfully commercialized in ways that generates sustained local benefits. When commercialization does happen, outsiders or a few well-placed insiders usually see the biggest windfall. Large-scale exploitation can also lead to resource depletion or conversion of forests for monoculture-based production. The ecosystem and local people lose.

The situation can be even worse in landscapes that have been completely deforested and subsequently degraded by poor land management. Rural small-holders may suffer from poor soils, which hurt yields and increase dependence on expensive fertilizers and other chemical inputs. Lack of profitability may cause some to move to urban areas or seek jobs on cattle ranches and industrial farms. Others may follow the forest frontier, clearing land for short-term use before moving deeper into rainforest areas. The approach is inherently unsustainable.

This wasn’t always the case. Ancient Amazonians utilized methodologies like permaculture and terra preta (biochar) to farm while enriching soils and even enhancing biodiversity.

A group in Peru is now working to embrace elements of this lost approach and in the process reduce small-holder deforestation, restore the quality of degraded tropical soil, and diversify and strengthen rural livelihoods. Eco Ola, a Peru-based organization founded by William Park and Carla Noain, has developed a community training center in the Peruvian Amazon to train people to learn how to improve soil in a polyculture/agroforestry system. Permaculture essentially mimics the form and structure of a natural forest, with a diverse array of species including a canopy of timber and fruit trees; an understory of cacao, bananas and species; and a shrub layer of herbs, legumes, and peppers. Eco Ola also runs a small non-wood forest products venture with indigenous communities.