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Breaking Boundaries: Revitalising ancient forest practices in the Amazon

28 January 2022

2 minutes to read

Breaking Boundaries: Revitalising ancient forest practices in the Amazon

Research at the University of Exeter is helping to protect and strengthen biodiversity in the Amazon rainforest through facilitating and incentivising sustainable land use.

Following a decade of stability (2005-2015), Amazonian deforestation is again on the rise. Commercial interests, population growth, climate change and reduced environmental regulations are threatening biodiversity, indigenous heritage and community identity.

Professor Jose Iriarte’s research has generated a long-term baseline for assessing these transformations through exploring and documenting the rich cultural and environmental history of the Amazon forests whilst also helping address the major issues facing the rainforest today.

Data gathered during the ERC ‘PAST’ project found that native populations did not passively adapt to the forest, but rather transformed it. For the past four millennia, pre-Columbian communities practised soil fertilisation, closed-canopy forest enrichment, limited clearing for crop cultivation and low-severity fire management.

The team demonstrated that the spread of ‘Araucaria’ (monkey puzzle tree) forests in the southern Brazilian highlands was not the result of climate change, but rather deliberate afforestation.

A second ERC project, FUTURES, working with Extractive Reserves in the Brazilian Amazon, has helped to create detailed digital models of the reserve and 3D maps of the forest structure. This has helped identify new areas for the exploitation of non-timber forest products such as açai palm berries and Brazil nut that can be harvested for commercial markets. These maps have also encouraged incentivisation in land use. Managed by national and regional authorities, activities such as Brazil nut and organic rubber harvesting sustainably is rewarded with a higher sale price.

The projects also helped communities reconnect with their cultural identity. In the Itonama Indigenous Community of Versalles archaeological features were overlooked. Large prehistoric urns were used as rubbish bins, and villagers were unaware that the highly fertile soils on which they grow their crops were thanks to thousands of years of forest enrichment by past communities. The demand for economic growth had placed pressure on natural resources, with discussions increasingly turning to the economic potential of cattle ranching and commercial ‘slash-and-burn’ agriculture.

Following the research collaboration, they developed alternative pathways for cultural and environmental heritage ecotourism. Collectively, they laid the foundation for an internal reassessment of community governance and the creation of a development strategy for the community to take charge of their natural resources to fairly and sustainably use their environmental and cultural heritage (

By stressing the value, heritage and biodiversity represented by Amazonian plant cultivation, the research has raised the profile of women as vital caretakers of this global asset. The research has empowered women and young people which has begun to address gender inequalities and enabled pathways for female-generated income in the form of new biocultural tourism programmes.

Finally, the research team have helped to raising public awareness of traditional Amazonian people’s territorial claims through the media, including a three-part documentary aired by Channel 4: Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon,  with more than two million viewers in the UK alone.

By facilitating and incentivising sustainable Amazonian land use, Professor Jose Iriarte’s research has benefited marginalised communities in Bolivia and Brazil, through to the Brazilian government’s environmental institution, ICMBio and the INPE (the Brazilian Institute of Space Research). Whilst the Amazon has been in crisis this research is helping to turn the tides on the problems of deforestation in the Amazon.



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