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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

Recent agroforestry research

There have been few attempts in the tropical moist forests of Latin America to promote agroforestry techniques based on the wealth of indigenous technical knowledge. Recent research has generally attempted to solve the problem of declining soil fertility and degradation by other means, but has had limited technical success. Projects are beset with infrastructural and economic difficulties, as shown in the examples below.


Research at Yurimaguas in the Peruvian Amazon is based upon the premise that poor soil fertility is the major constraint to agricultural output and this problem can be overcome by correct applications of chemical fertilizers (Nicholaides et al., 1985). A continuous cropping system was developed to replace slash and burn agriculture in which yields of annual crops could only be maintained at an adequate level for two years, before fallowing became necessary. The theory underlying this approach was that if continuous production is possible on Amazonian soils, agricultural production systems can be stabilized through the use of modern inputs. The need to migrate once the soil is exhausted no longer becomes necessary.

A rotation of rice/ maize/ soyabean (three crops per year) was introduced, which was repeated continuously. To achieve this 1 t lime, 80-100 kg N, 25 kg P and 100-160 kg K were required per hectare per year, along with pesticide inputs. These inputs produced good returns and a threefold increase in income over traditional techniques. While producing information on crop / soil dynamics for specific tropical zones, this research has completely ignored any indigenous knowledge of land use and soil management. The infrastructure required to maintain the system is not in place throughout much of the Amazon. Chemical inputs are simply not available, nor is credit without land title. The distance to market is often a limiting factor to profitable commercial agriculture.


The Brazilian Government has attempted to promote sustainable perennial crop-based agricultural systems in Amazonia. It set up the Northwest Brazil Integrated Development Programme or Polonoroeste in 1981 which applied to all of the State of Rondonia and the western part of Mato Grosso. The objective was to reduce forest clearance on land of little long-term potential and promote tree crop farming.

These initiatives have failed to slow the rate of deforestation or change colonist farming systems. The implementation of macro-economic austerity measures during the early 1980s resulted in a reduction in funds available for credit and subsidized inputs. When credit was available, farmers were reluctant to invest in perennial crops as the subsidies on offer were not sufficient to offset the risks associated with the cultivation of new crops of which the new colonist had little or no experience (Mahar, 1991).

The long-term investment required for sustainable land use is unattractive where inflation is high and tenure insecure, and short-term profit seeking has become the predominant strategy (Anderson, 1990). The end result has been an abandonment of land after several years cropping or the sale of such land to cattle ranchers and a movement of colonists to the frontier.


Until recently the British Tropical Agricultural Mission based at Santa Cruz in the Bolivian lowlands had not investigated agroforestry as a possible viable alternative to the problems of declining fertility under annual cropping systems. In the past few years alley cropping with Leucaena leucocephala and the introduction of macadamia, cashew, peach palm and coconuts have been investigated Johnson, 1991; Wilkins, 1991). Difficulties have been experienced, however, with marketing of tree crop products and Leucaena does not perform well under acid conditions.

Experiments are also being attempted with biologically and economically improved forest fallows, again with the introduction of exotic leguminous species. So far no attempt has been made to study indigenous farm management practices to assess their potential for improving the management, fertility and output of settler agriculture.


The Coca Agroforestry Project in Napo Province of Eastern Ecuador has been promoting agroforestry techniques since 1984 (Peck, 1990). Here, the indigenous swidden system of the Napo Quicha Amerindians did form the basis for some of the management practices recommended by the project. Demonstrations focused on agroforestry practices within the existing perennial crop systems (robusta coffee) and pastures of the colonists. Some technical successes have been reported on the establishment of economic tree species in pastures and coffee plantations, but their economic potential and the market potential of the new products has not been taken into account.