Cover Image
close this bookIndigenous Agroforestry in Latin America: a Blueprint for Sustainable Agriculture? (NRI, 1994, 24 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentForeword
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentGlossary
View the documentSummary
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentForest destruction and environmental degradation
Open this folder and view contentsSwidden agriculture
View the documentBenefits of swidden agriculture
View the documentRecent agroforestry research
View the documentBlueprint for colonist agriculture?
View the documentConclusions
View the documentReferences
View the documentFurther reading


Large-scale rain forest destruction in Latin America has occurred partly as a result of government policy incentives to colonize and clear forest for agriculture and ranching, in order to alleviate poor economic and social conditions in other regions. Inappropriate agricultural techniques have been used which are not sustainable, and the new colonist farmers are forced to clear ever more virgin forest for agriculture in order to survive.

The objectives of this literature review are to assess the value of the traditional subsistence agroforestry (swidden) systems practiced over centuries by the indigenous people of Latin America (Amerindians), and to suggest ways of incorporating these methods into a sustainable (non-destructive) and productive system for the new colonist farmers. In the past, researchers perceived these swidden methods as an exploitative and destructive form of agriculture, because they involved cutting and burning of the forest. However, clearings are small, and planting and protection of trees after the initial cultivation of annual crops aids the forest regrowth in the fallow phase.

Specific examples of swidden agroforestry systems are described, and their contribution to sustainability, biodiversity, productivity for market, soil conservation, flexibility and population density support are discussed. Overall, they are found to be less destructive and more productive than the new colonist agriculture, and should form a basis for a sustainable system.

The review then outlines the possibilities for and limits (often labour intensive, location-specific and socioeconomic constraints) to the adoption of these methods by new colonist farmers. Suggestions are made for research priorities to enable their effective transfer, including thorough documentation of existing systems and their capacity, participatory field research, the marketing potential for crops and forest products and the changes in government policy required to implement these methods.

The review concludes that indigenous agroforestry systems are both ecologically and economically beneficial, but are not without some limitations. From the wealth of indigenous knowledge available and proposed new research, it should be possible to adapt these systems to produce a model or blueprint for sustainable and productive agriculture for the new colonist.

Indigenous Agroforestry in Latin America: A Blueprint for Sustainable Agriculture? will not only be of interest to policy makers and donor agencies, but also to those interested in the preservation of the rainforests.