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Indigenous Shifting Cultivation and the New Amazonia: A Piaroa Example of Economic Articulation
Germán N. Freire
Published online: 13 August 2007 # Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2007
Abstract This article argues against the idea that indigenous cultural change and knowledge loss are inevitably bonded to one another, with particular reference to agroproductive transformations. This view has not only ignored the potential of these productive systems—well documented in recent decades—but has often threatened them by promoting development policies based on mistaken premises. It is suggested here that some indigenous peoples’ productive responses to market integration may in fact offer alternatives to the paradoxes of development in seemingly fragile tropical environments. This article reports, in particular, on the strategies developed by the Piaroa, from southern Venezuela. Contemporary large and permanent Piaroa communities, which resulted from their involvement in aspects of national society, have been able to sustain the forests on which they depend while satisfying their food and market necessities. This has been possible due to a series of market strategies based on their agroforestal tradition, which have emphasised the commercialization of secondary forest products. The article proposes that these strategies have been underestimated due to the market conditions in which Piaroa farmers are immersed, and from which they have learnt the very principles of “capitalism.” Oil dependent and saturated with corruption, the Venezuelan market hampers their full economic integration, contributing to the idea that their agroforestry system can only produce at subsistence levels. Key words Shifting cultivation . Market integration . Economic change . Piaroa . Venezuela . Amazonia
Introduction Cultural change in lowland South America has often being portrayed as diminishing the capability of indigenous peoples to cope with their current social and environmental needs. This view a priori ignores the potential of indigenous productive systems, and at times prompts development policies based on erroneous premises that, at best, constrain the generation of local alternatives. Less attention has been paid to the indigenous peoples’ responses to, and views of, phenomena such as market production and environmental degradation. The idea that lowland indigenous productive systems are only suited to small and dispersed populations— although highly contested over the past couple of decades— is at the heart of this bias. This idea was stimulated by today’s small and dispersed indigenous populations in the area. Archaeological data have shown, however, that Amazonia’s present population is only a small proportion of the pre-Columbian one. Many aspects of their current settlement and social patterns are in fact the result of the dramatic population decline that followed post-1492 contact (Denevan 1992; Denevan et al. 1984; Heckenberger et al. 2003; Lathrap 1970; McEwan et al. 2001; Uhl et al. 1990; Zent 1992). Most authors assert nowadays that prior to European arrival Amazonian population was at least ten times larger than today. Soil analyses have shown that vast portions of the Amazon basin were subject to human management prior to 1492.1 Black earth, terra preta, a nutrient-rich soil type attributed to
1 William Balée (1989) estimated in the 1980s that at least 14% of Brazil’s forests were anthropogenic, and pointed out that these were precisely the forests that Native Amazonians occupy at present. These forests, more interestingly, did not show reduction of natural biodiversity as a result of human intervention. Brown and Lugo (1990:40) re-estimated later that about 40% of the tropical forests in South America were anthropogenic, and most of the remaining had had some modification in the past. Denevan has gone further, asserting that “there are no virgin tropical forests [in America], nor were there in 1492.” (1992:375).
G. N. Freire (*) Ministerio de Salud, Caracas, Venezuela e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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intensive and long-term accumulation of organic waste, due to human refuse and intense agriculture, is found widely scattered throughout the lowlands (Hamlin and Salik 2003; Heckenberger et al. 1999, 2003; McEwan et al. 2001; Petersen et al. 2001; Smith 1980; Uhl et al. 1990). Moreover, several archaeological studies have presented evidence of large, sedentary social formations that occupied and managed extensive portions of the tropical lowland over a long period of time (Heckenberger et al. 2003; Fernández and Gassón 1993; Lathrap 1970; Oliver 2001; Spencer and Redmond 1992; Roosevelt 1980, 1991; Smith 1980; Tarble 1993). It is, thus, increasingly clear that “modern anthropological work [in the area] has been based on peoples whose representativeness of the prior social landscape is questionable” (Nugent 1998: 41). There is also growing evidence for the capacity of lowland productive systems—especially agroforestry—to sustain populations much larger and more permanent than present ones (Atran 1993, Atran et al. 2002; Balée 1993; Carneiro 1961; Carter 1969; Coomes and Burt 1997; Coomes et al. 2000; Denevan 1992; Posey and Balée 1989; Rival 2006; Roosevelt 1991; Sanchez and Benites 1987; Sanchez et al. 1997; Smith 1980). Continuity between past and present agroforestal practices in areas with high pre-Columbian population densities has been demonstrated in several parts of the tropical lowlands, both in South and Central America (Atran 1993; Heckenberger et al. 2003). Long-term research conducted among contemporary Amazonians has shown, moreover, that current “tropical forest cultivators can produce surpluses through shifting cultivation with a minimal amount of labour expended, but they generally lack the necessary economic and political stimuli to do so” (Posey 1985:176). Despite mounting archaeological and ethnobiological data supporting these views, to date few studies have attempted to describe the impact of market production and demographic concentration on indigenous agroforestry and, more importantly, on its ability to adapt to an increasingly globalised environment (cf. Hamlin and Salik 2003; Godoy et al. 2005; Vadez et al. 2004). The received wisdom, although weakened, still suggests that population growth, sedentarism, and participation in aspects of national society endanger the “fragile equilibrium” that ought to exist between indigenous peoples and the forested lowlands for shifting cultivation to be economically and environmentally sustainable (cf. Meggers 2001). As recent archaeological and ethnobiological data show, these productive systems have gone through changes in population densities, mobility and economic articulations several times over the past five centuries. Their study should then be freed from the stigma of the counterfeit paradise thesis, famously synthesized by Meggers (1971). This article intends to show that, while it is true that the transition from subsistence economy to market production
largely depends on the context of the process, indigenous agricultural transformations might offer clues to the challenges of development in seemingly fragile environments. These matters are discussed with particular reference to the Piaroa, shifting cultivators of the Orinoco, who have experienced rapid cultural change over the past forty years. This article is based on fieldwork carried out in the middle Orinoco, especially in the Cataniapo basin, since 1996, which included about a year of permanent residence (1999– 2000) and several visits before and after. My fieldwork among the Piaroa has integrated standard ethnographic surveys with remote sensing, which in this article is used to apprise land use changes over a 30-year period2 (Aerial Photographs from 1970 and Landsat TM images from 1989 and 1998).
The Piaroa Despite having been contacted by Jesuit missionaries more than 300 years ago, the Piaroa remained relatively isolated from western influence until well into the XX century. Escaping the violence of the colonial period, they sought shelter in the secluded forested mountains of the Middle Orinoco (between the Cuao, Marieta and Autana basins; see Fig. 1), where they lived in small, scattered, and highly mobile communities until recently, keeping their relations with non-Piaroa to a minimum (Mansutti 1990; Zent 1992). In the centuries that followed their first contact, they moved back and forth between the mountains and the varzea zone depending on the violence of their indigenous and nonindigenous neighbours (Mansutti 1990). Their aversion to non-Piaroa, and especially to westerners, made them famous in the ethnographic literature as an elusive and fearful people (Chaffanjon 1986 ; Monod 1970; Overing 1975; Wilbert 1958). This attitude also helped them to outlive many of their neighbours, who owing to their proximity to European colonists were more exposed to epidemic diseases they brought with them.
2 Information for ground-truthing was mainly collected between 1999 and 2000, and included folk classifications of vegetal composition, landscape categories, plot-histories, and family histories of samples from all the productive units in San Pedro de Cataniapo (about 22 households divided into four –labour sharing– factions) and a sample of 20 households (out of 46), belonging to different factions, from Gavilán and its surroundings (Merey, Sardi, la Primavera and Fundo Pérez-Pérez). The data included here also comes from censuses of the two communities (2000); observations and participation in several hunting and foraging expeditions; and cartographic reconstruction of the territory with community leaders (see Freire 2003). I also recorded information of products sold and bought in the market (prices, units, etc) in the upper Cataniapo (1999–2000) and in Betaña de Topocho (1997). Most data, however, come from observations made through participant observation and involvement in many aspects of community life in these and other communities.
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Things started to change rapidly by the middle of the XX century, due to a series of epidemic outbreaks that forced much of their population to seek assistance outside their isolated heartland (Baumgartner 1954; Velez-Boza and Baumgartner 1962; Wilbert 1958). These pandemics coincided with a period of peaceful relations with the Creole population, which had stimulated the colonization of their surrounding lowlands and an increase in their exchanges with other peoples, including the Creole. At the same time, the proselytising work of evangelical missionaries, who had started operating in Piaroa territory in the 1940s, prompted a radical change of attitude toward outsiders by interfering with their medico–religious–political system (Zent 1993). Later, oil-backed government investment in the state, especially from the 1970s onwards, accelerated the Piaroa’s process of mass migration toward sources of western services—mainly biomedicine—and goods on the periphery of their traditional territory. These migrations involved more than 90% of their population in the short period of 40 years (currently estimated at about 14,500 people), leaving their heartland scarcely populated (see Fig. 1). Nevertheless, the Piaroa’s rapprochement to national society was conditioned by their strong attachment to forest environments, which were, and still are, central to their social identity. Besides Piaroa, a term of unknown origin, they call themselves /dearua/ or /wothïha/, terms that describe them as ‘owners’ or ‘lords’ (-rua) of the forest (dea), in the first case, and ‘knowledgeable people,’ in the second, implying that they hold the knowledge to control its elements (Anduze 1974; Zent 1992). Their mythology also explains much of their distinctiveness as a ‘knowledgeable’ people by means of their close relationship with the forest. They actually look down on many of their savannah neighbours (such as the Hiwi and the Creole) because of their poor skills in dealing with forest environments. The forest is also an essential part of their social memory. Piaroa people can easily identify secondary forests, their owners, and the history of their communities through its composition (material or symbolic), even if they do not normally show interest in human genealogies. For the Piaroa human health and well-being are, in fact, largely dependent on the recognition of the close relationship between a portion of the forest and the spirits of the ancestors who lived in it. People who fail to identify this relationship suffer from many misfortunes, including poor harvests, bad luck in hunting, and a variety of illnesses, some of which make them feel ill at ease in their communities and drive them to ‘walk like mad’ through the forest; e.g., dea ituna, suripa china (Freire and Zent 2007). In traditional Piaroa communities, moreover, settlement and land use patterns were directly related to one another (Overing 1975; Zent 1992). Gardens were cleared in the
surroundings of the community, but as the settlement got older and its surroundings exhausted, new gardens were opened farther from the community centre. Huts were then built in more distant gardens and these were used as seasonal houses, mostly due to the intensive labour demands of cassava processing. A single settlement would then have various houses at any one time and, eventually, as the distance between the new gardens and the village grew, one of these seasonal residences was chosen as the permanent house (isode) and the social life of the village reorganized around it. This dispersed and multisite land use pattern was part and parcel of their defensive strategies, allowing them to abandon an area at the first sign of outsiders without severely affecting their productive capabilities. This was essential owing to their renowned rejection of physical violence (Mansutti 2003). Nevertheless, the Piaroa rarely abandoned a field as an extractive zone. Secondary harvest, hunting, and the collection of wild and feral species continued until the secondary forest was cleared again for cultivation. This cycle was and still is at the heart of the Piaroa’s understanding of land rights. Contemporary Piaroa families who have migrated to the vicinity of Creole towns continue to engage in lengthy hunting and gathering expeditions to their old secondary forests, their tabotihamina resaba (fallows of the ancestors) to reassert their rights over these territories. These old secondary forests are believed to be the best lands for agriculture. Since the woody vegetation is softer to cut there than primary forest, gardening in one’s tabotihamina resaba is also a labor-saving strategy. Stanford Zent estimated the entire cycle, from clearing to fallowing and re-clearing, as about 20 years in the Upper Cuao—one of the few areas consistent with pre-1970 descriptions of Piaroa society (Zent 1992). It is not surprising, then, that in their approach to national society the Piaroa sought ways to balance their need for access to western services and goods on the one hand, and their need to remain within the forests that support many of their social and economic dynamics on the other. Their responses to these opposing forces have been heterogeneous and creative, and suggest that some views of sociocultural change should be revised (cf. Henrich 1997). What follows will exemplify this process through the recent history of the Cataniapo basin, a tributary of the Middle Orinoco. This is one of the fastest growing areas in their territory, located about 30 km from the state capital, Puerto Ayacucho.
Cataniapo Cataniapo has been a historic borderland between the Creole and Piaroa worlds for more than a 150 years
684 Fig. 1 Location of Piaroa communities in the Middle Orinoco. Based on Zent (2007) and Censo Indígena de Venezuela 1992 (OCEI 1993). Taken from Freire 2003:354.
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(Mansutti 1990). The middle Orinoco was colonized by the late XVIII and early XIX centuries, when permanent missions were established along the riverbanks (cf. Dreyfus 1983–1984: 51). This was the point at which metal tools entered the regional system of exchange, imposing for the first time a vertical organization of exchange between
communities according to their access to limited sources, and not just to the status of the trader. Creole goods reached Piaroa territory through communities located around the Missions, on the rim of their heartland. These exchanges led to intermittent interactions with the missionaries and eventually with Creole colonisers. Cataniapo communities
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were at the forefront of this system of interconnections because of their proximity to the Atures rapids, which block the Orinoco River and require land transportation for about 50 km. Cataniapo communities served then as a hub of exchange with the Piaroa hinterland, with Creole goods passing in one direction and Piaroa and natural products in the other. Cataniapo started to change in 1962, when the regional government of Amazonas opened a road to facilitate the expansion of the agricultural frontier into what was believed to be uninhabited forestland. The road stretched 30 km from Puerto Ayacucho into the Cataniapo basin. Eighteen families from other parts of the country, mostly Creole farmers from the northern savannahs, were brought to the middle basin, where they built homes and logged about 150 ha of forest for cultivation. The new community was called Gavilán, an experimental palm oil producing settlement, and the government built a primary school, an infirmary, and provided the farmers with loans and shoots to grow African palm (Elaeis guineensis). Technical support and help for processing and commercialising the palm oil never arrived, though, and unable to cope with the forest the Creole families soon abandoned the area. When this occurred several small Piaroa communities started colonising the project’s lands. The project’s massive clearing had in fact been opened on Piaroa fallow lands and not, as government agents believed, on primary forest. The Piaroa had abandoned the area some 20 years earlier due to an outbreak of malaria, during which time they referred to it as kwoso, area of illness. With the arrival of the Creole, and especially with the arrival of a Creole nurse, the Piaroa felt encouraged to return to their lands. As the Creole farmers left the area they began to regain control over the territory. At first, Gavilán was occupied by several small traditional communities, known as isodæ (pl.) that totalled fewer than 40 people. However, it soon became a centre of attraction for Piaroa from remoter regions in the hinterland
Fig. 2 Approximate boundaries of the Cataniapo basin, in southern Venezuela. The image shows the ecological transition from savannah/gallery forest on the bank of the Orinoco River, left, to the closed semideciduous forests that cover most of the Cataniapo basin, right. Landsat TM, 1998 (path 4, row 56), false-colour composite of infrared bands, assigned to red (5), green (4), and blue (3) to provide the appearance of natural vegetation.
due to its easy access to Creole markets and medical care. In 1979, the National Agrarian Institute granted the community a provisional land title in which Gavilán was recognised as an indigenous community for the first time. Two years later, the government built western-style houses (cement walls and corrugated iron roofs) and relocated the families 70 m to the roadside, which would facilitate their ‘integration’ to national life. At this time, Gavilán was already one of the largest and fastest growing communities in Piaroa territory. In 1986 it was inhabited by some 150 people (Zent 1986, unpublished census), and only fourteen years later, at the time of my fieldwork, it had about 210 people which together with some 59 people living in several smaller satellite settlements (Sardi, Merey, La Primavera, and Pérez-Pérez) made of it one of the largest Piaroa communities in the territory (see Figs. 2 and 3). Gavilán was not an isolated case. During the last 20 years, Cataniapo kept attracting other indigenous and Creole farmers due to its proximity to Puerto Ayacucho, which is the main centre of government investment in the state (Puerto Ayacucho alone concentrates about 74% of the state’s health budget, for example; Toro 1997). Hence, Gavilán is currently located on the frontier between this colonisation front and the Piaroa hinterland, and it now shares the upper basin with two other large Piaroa communities—San Pedro and San Pablo—with 118 and 182 people respectively, both at 2 to 5 h by boat from Gavilán (depending on the season). The road connecting Gavilán with the state’s capital is now paved, and the trip to the city takes about 30 min by car. There is daily public transport to the city market, where most people go regularly, and on an average Friday and Saturday morning, days of the indigenous street-market in Puerto Ayacucho, about one fifth of the upper basin population goes to the city. Cataniapo is, in fact, one of the most important sources of local food products for Puerto Ayacucho, now home to more than 50,000 people, and all Piaroa communities along the river are well-versed in market transactions.
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Fig. 3 Gavilán and its satellite communities in the middle Cataniapo area (centre of Fig. 2).
Paradoxically, the booming population growth generated by the government’s investment in Cataniapo was perceived by the same authorities as a problem for development. Once ‘sedentarised,’ indigenous people were categorised as rural poor and therefore believed to be in need of externally planned development. This view was shared, and probably fuelled, by most anthropologists at that time (cf. Boglar and Caballero 1982; Overing and Kaplan 1988). Hence, government programmes such as the construction of corrugated-iron houses, schools and infirmaries, were generally accompanied by agricultural development programmes. The technology attached to these programmes did not change much, in principle, from the kind of programmes that led to the foundation of Gavilán in the first place. Most of these programmes emphasised the need to “modernise” their productive system, “adapting” it to the new market conditions of the region. Although mostly unsuccessful, these programmes have shaped many of the agricultural dynamics of the region, so the following section will summarise some of their principles, and the way these have connected to local indigenous communities.
Development and the Failure of Modern Farming “Modern farming” in the Venezuelan context generally means monocropped, input-based, and labour intensive agriculture. It has been persistently proposed in Amazonas as a solution to indigenous peoples’ integration to national life, and Cataniapo has been no exception. A paramount programme in this sense was the conuco mejorado, ‘improved smallholding,’ developed by the government in the 1970’s and applied throughout the country with little regard to economic, cultural or environmental specificities
(Freire 2005). The programme, which was a local euphemism for modern farming, consisted of the introduction of foreign elements oriented to ‘speed up’ and ‘optimise’ yields in the areas where smallholdings and ‘subsistence agriculture’ were predominant. It included the incorporation of tractors and high-yielding species aimed at creating monocultures, and relied on fertilisers to fight the poor soil conditions created by intensive agriculture. Although it was not developed for the state of Amazonas (preeminently indigenous in composition), its implementation in the state has been recurrent, under different names and with subtle technological modifications. Most of the technology associated with these kinds of programmes has proved if not destructive at least nonviable for Amazonian environments (Bunker 1985; Hecht 1992). This type of agriculture is not feasible without government subsidies because of the costs of fertilising Amazonian soils and the dramatic yield declines after a few years of production (cf. Sanchez et al. 1982). These processes, more importantly, have long-term impacts that threaten the possibility of a sustainable existence for future generations (Clark and Uhl 1984). Uhl (1983) estimated that in the forests of San Carlos de Río Negro, to the south of Piaroa territory, for example, an area cleared with tractor would require up to 1,000 years to recover its high forest cover. Regarding profits, already in the 1980s the Venezuelan Ministry of Environment reported that, after more than a decade of modern farming in the state, modern farms did not account for more than 0.2% of the vegetables produced (Perera 1987: 110). In more than 30 years, in fact, modern farming programmes have not produced a single successful result to support their implementation. Yet they still represent the paradigm of government and nongovernment agricultural extensions in the region. Modern farming has been tried several times in Cataniapo, generally accompanied by animal raising, and Piaroa farmers have taken part in these programmes in order to establish relations with government agents that improve their political opportunities within the community. This is because leadership is now dependent on the leaders’ ability to demonstrate good relations with the Creole world, from where they obtain western goods, services, and salaries that are now an essential part of their lives (Freire 2004). These programmes are generally accompanied by salaried jobs and infrastructure that reinforce the leaders’ role as providers of wealth (Overing 1975), so local communities welcome them regardless of their opinions of western agricultural technology. Additionally, Piaroa farmers are naturally curious about new species and management techniques, so they are always ready to experiment. In the communities where modern farming programmes were being implemented at the time of my fieldwork, new species and technologies were invariably under observation
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in their traditional areas of experimentation, their house garden (isode patha), or in small gardens opened in the vicinity of their houses. New crops were excluded from or incorporated into their productive systems only after a long trial period. Very few crops, however, have made their way to their gardens in the ten years I have been visiting Cataniapo. Coffee (Coffea arabiga), for instance, is a plant that most communities have been planning to grow for commercial purposes ever since I first visited the area in 1996. All Piaroa I have talked to during my visits to the region claim that the plant grows well in their soils and assure me they could make profits from its commercialisation. I do not know, however, of a single person who has yet introduced it to their gardening areas, although some have claimed to be ‘testing it’ for more than ten years. Animals raised experimentally, for their part, are usually slaughtered or abandoned early on and their meat either sold or consumed by the family group, much to the frustration of development agents. Although most Piaroa are keen on pets they are not usually inclined to raise animals for consumption. Hunting, fishing, and gathering are seen as more acceptable and enjoyable ways of providing meat to the family. A similar attitude towards cattle raising has been reported in other parts of the tropical lowlands (cf. Rudel et al. 2002). Besides, all research on food consumption and health carried out in the area confirms that game and wild/ feral products are abundant in Piaroa territory, even around peripheral communities (Hidalgo 1997a, b, 1998, 2002; Melnyk 1995; Freire 2002). In addition, the Piaroa seem reluctant to market imported crops, of which they have scant knowledge, and while development plans emphasise the incorporation of external elements, they are more inclined to privilege strategies rooted in their agroforestal tradition. Piaroa families invariably prefer to rely on fallow and forest products, and they have enlarged and manipulated the composition of the fallow lands surrounding their communities for that purpose. As will be shown in the next section, the people of Gavilán have managed and transformed the massive clearing produced by the government more than four decades ago into a secondary forest that is now used, among other things, for sustained market production. Piaroa resource management has in fact produced extensive landscape transformations in most of the upper Cataniapo basin, which are generally overlooked in development programmes due to the gap separating the two agricultural models.
Shifting Cultivation Current Piaroa productive strategies are obviously constrained by their new settlement and social patterns. These include living in larger, more permanent communities, with
a growing number of people, and in places where forested land gets increasingly scarce. Unlike other peoples, however, this process has not taken them far from their traditional lands, and the encounter with national society has not been characterised by the dramatic clash of interests that we have seen elsewhere (cf. Bunker 1985; Schmink and Wood 1992; Smith 1982). The Piaroa have hence been relatively free to move between innovation and tradition in their adaptation to a new social and environmental context. The Piaroa describe the cultivation cycle as a series of interrelated phases that follow and sometimes overlap one another, something common to other South American peoples (cf Denevan and Padoch 1987; Posey and Balée 1989; De Jong 1996). Their main distinction is between labour intensive phases, known as patha, and a series of phases described with the generic term resaba. The latter start when labour demanding cultigens, such as cassava and maize, are substituted with slow growing ones, such as palms and trees, which demand little attention and produce for much longer periods. As shown in Table I, these two generic terms are divisible into several smaller categories, which describe the phases of evolution of the garden, its predominant species, its owner, and so forth. The selection of gardening areas in peripheral communities is partly determined by the distance from the village centre, on the one hand, and the recognition of ancestral bonds with the land, on the other. Since the village is now sedentary and most of the produce is still carried by foot, the expansion of the cultivated area is limited by a person’s walking capability. New gardens are opened in lands adjoining old gardens, so they tend to keep their productive units within the same valley or along the same microbasin. These valleys generally correspond to the land of what was their isode of origin; i.e. their traditional community before joining the cluster of family factions that now form large communities such as Gavilán. The incorporation of new members into a community by means of marriage or political alliances also implies their incorporation into this territorial and labour distribution system, so they will work in a family or faction’s lands (Freire 2003). Family rights over these territories, as over their ancestral lands, are asserted through continuous use. Figure 4 shows typical land distribution between factions in a large, longevous community, where factional lands are allocated along small creeks and adjacent to one another. Land distribution corresponds to family groupings within the community itself, because every Piaroa’s desire to work and live with their closest relatives (cf. Overing 1975) is also manifested in their allocation within the community (Fig. 4). Houses and land rights are therefore exchanged when the political affiliations change, so the social arrangements of a community at any one time are manifested in the layout of the community and its surrounding gardens (Freire 2004).
688 Table I Main Cultivation Stages Piaroa Isaka homena/isaka sakwa Dawye hoipia Isaka kwoa Yamu patha/patha aleata Ire patha Resaba sakwa/resaba hareaba Pahare resaba/nai resaba / etc. English Slashed forest Felled but unburned field Burned field, period of cultivation Garden with maize (yamu) Garden with cassava (ire) Fallow’s early stage, bushy/low vegetation; recently abandoned cassava field Fallow with peach palm (pahare)/fallow with Amazon grape (nai)/name varies according to predominant species Old secondary forest Old garden of the ancestors Period 0 0–4 months 4–5 months 5–11 months 1–3 (5) years 3–4 years >4 years
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Predominant vegetation Woody, high vegetation. Drying veg. Burnt veg. Collection of certain barks. Maize (Zea mays) Cassava (Manihot esculenta), several minor crops. Leguminous plants, palms, fruit plants, medicinal plants, and several drugs. Peach palm (Bactris gasipaes), Amazon grape (Pourouma cecropaeifolia), wild cacao (Theobroma grandiflorum), etc. Mix of cultivated plants, feral and wild (esp. palms and fruit trees) Wild, feral and plants associated to human intervention, e.g. Sclerolobium guianense Predominantly wild and feral vegetation
Tabo(saba) resaba Tabotihamina resaba
>6 years >25 years
Primary forest and old secondary forest
While new gardens are opened farther and farther away, the land closer to the community is managed as fallow, until it is cleared again for gardening. Gardens and fallow lands are then concentrically arranged around their longevous villages. Thus, shifting cultivation takes place, ideally, in circles representing different stages of development that expand from centre to periphery, and start again when the secondary vegetation of the first gardens is ready for gardening once more. Clearings are opened by groups of men, although gender roles have been relaxed in many instances. In the event of labour shortages, for example, labour demands are satisfied either by men or women with few exceptions, such as hunting and magic singing, which have remained men’s activities in all cases. Thus, it is not infrequent to find men processing cassava and women slashing and burning, or even occupying leadership posts such as comisario (a post for community–government liaison traditionally reserved to men). Men still do all the planting of crops used or handled exclusively by them, such as tobacco (Nicotiniana tabacum), caapi (Baanisteriopsis caapi), and other drugs and plants used for ritual purposes. Other crops are planted and looked after by either husband or wife.3
Although for practical reasons Piaroa people and family might be presented as rather monolithic categories in this article, age, gender, and other demographic categories are highly variable in contemporary communities. These patterns, which no doubt influence their market and agroforestal strategies, are analysed elsewhere (Freire 2004).
New clearings are opened in secondary forests that range between 12 and 15 years old. These fallow periods are slightly shorter than those found by Zent (1992) in the upper Cuao (see above), but long enough to span the productive life of most palms and fruit trees. The size of a family’s fields depends on the number of people working them and on the number of dependants, but most gardens in the upper Cataniapo had between 1 and 6 ha, very similar to Zent’s description for more traditional Piaroa areas (Zent 1992: 189). A large, extended family will normally have many small gardens simultaneously, rather than a large one. Fields are commonly planted to a cereal–cassava– palmae sequence, as in other parts of Amazonia, together with around two dozen minor crops, such as cotton, papaya, pepper, and pineapple. This sequence allows weed control with a minimum effort due to the strategic intercropping of fast growing cultigens, such as maize, which suppress weeds very effectively from the start, with slow growing ones, such as cassava and palms, which are not competitive initially but have abundant root and leaf area to eventually take over. Thus, lands are kept productive over longer periods of time without harming the forest’s regenerative capabilities (Staver 1989; Denevan et al. 1984; Denevan and Padoch 1987). Although the relative composition of the fields makes them seem monocropped (or bicropped) due to the much larger areas used for cassava and maize during the early successions, their gardens constitute complex and diversitybased farming systems (Zent 1992). From a non-exhaustive
Hum Ecol (2007) 35:681–696 Fig. 4 Distribution of lands and factional division of San Pedro, Upper Cataniapo, 2000. Based on Freire 2003 and 2004.
listing, Piaroa farmers from Cataniapo identified 15 to 30 plant taxa in their gardens, plus numerous varieties. Cassava, for instance, in spite of the dominance of some five marketable varieties, was planted in a range of 15 to 25 varieties. But plant diversity is higher if all family lands are included within the same productive unit in the analysis. Piaroa farmers, in fact, refer to the composition of their gardens in association with other gardens and fallow lands of their family holdings, rather than in isolation. Crop diversity is a source of pride and status for Piaroa farmers, who constantly show off their plant knowledge and management skills, so it should not be surprising that plant diversity in Cataniapo has not diminished with market integration. In more traditional areas, Zent identified
between 20 and 40 different cultigens per garden and possibly over a hundred different varieties of species (Zent 1992: 197). Studies in other parts of lowland South America have confirmed that market integration does not necessarily reduce agricultural diversity (Godoy et al. 2005; Vadez et al. 2004). The shift to fallow occurs after three to five years, when weeding becomes too demanding. Studies in other parts of Amazonia have noted that this happens in spite of adequate yields (Denevan et al. 1984; Nicholaides et al. 1984; Staver 1989). This is because even though cassava and a few other garden crops constitute the majority of the diet, fallow and forest products provide the greatest variety of food species for Amazonian cultivators. In addition, the fallows consti-
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Fig. 5 Aerial photograph showing land cover around Gavilán about 8 years after Creole clearing for African palm production, centre, and traditional Piaroa communities around it, bottom and top (Servicio Autónomo de Geografía y Cartografía Nacional, Venezuela, 1970, 1:5000).
tute nutrient storage for future cropping, and an important environment for hunting and gathering wild and feral species. In fact, 54 of the 65 plants Piaroa consumed regularly in Cataniapo were present in these environments. The most common uses of fallow plants were food (45%), construction or manufacturing (15%), medicine (10%), and food supply for game animals (8%); although the composition of fallow lands was very variable. In more traditional communities the most important function was food supply for game animals (Zent 1995: 79). Therefore, fishing, hunting, and gathering of wild and feral species in areas surrounding their gardens accompanied shifting cultivation in all peripheral communities. Most hunting and gathering in Cataniapo took place within a 15 km radius and although there was an increase in the area due to population growth, this was not proportional to community size. In San Pedro, for instance, with 116 inhabitants and abundant forest in the vicinity, most hunting trips occurred within an area of 7 to 11 km, while in Gavilán and its surroundings, with 269 inhabitants, most hunting and gathering took place within an area of 14 km from the village. Longer distances were only covered for the collection of species outside the community area, such
This, of course, does not take into account very old fallows, their tabotihamina resaba, which might still be in use but are difficult to assess with satellite and aerial imagery. The delimitation of these forested areas requires a detailed and systematic examination of floristic composition, such as that carried out by Zent (1992, 1995) in other parts of Piaroa land, which has not been within the scope of my research in Cataniapo so far.
as seje (Jessenia bataua) abundant in northern savannahs about 2 h away by bus. The proportion of gardens and fallows is relatively similar throughout the entire basin, roughly corresponding to 0.25 ha of garden per hectare of fallow, which coincides with the Piaroa’s own description of their productive units. Increases in the land used by a family or productive unit tend to keep this proportion, unless important additions of labour alter food needs and working capacity radically, such as a marriage leading to an entire family’s migration. In these cases, more gardens are opened during the early years until the needs and labour possibilities of the family are satisfied, at which point the land use returns to a proportion of about 0.25 gardens per fallow.4 Population growth is therefore accompanied by a proportional enlargement of both fallow and gardening areas, rather than by expanding gardening areas alone, which characterises most colonist models of land use in the area. In Gavilán, for instance, while the population grew by an impressive 280% between 1986 and 2000 (Zent 1986, unpublished census; Freire 2002), its gardening areas had a much more modest increase, passing from 0.18 ha per fallow to 0.26 in the same period. Figures 5, 6, and 7 show the recovery and reclearing of gardens and fallows in Gavilán over a 30 year period. In other communities of the upper basin with more moderate population dynamics, the proportion of gardens to fallow has been more stable, due both to their traditional management regime, which emphasises forest regeneration, and to their market choices, which have focused on marketing fallow crops. In this way they avoid the increase
Fig. 6 Land cover around Gavilán in 1989 (6) and 1998 (7). The images illustrate the recovery of low-forest cover, points B and C, over a 9-year period and the recolonization of mature fallow lands (low forest) around the community, point A. Compare with Fig. 5, points A and D, for evolution of Creole clearing over a 36-year period. Landsat TM (path 4, row 56), 1989 and 1998, PCA, camp 1.
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in ecological stress that characterises colonial, monocropped farming.
The Market The question of how this complex system of production connects to the market does not have an easy answer, as many noneconomic factors –mainly political– determine the Piaroa’s market decisions. Practically everybody in the Cataniapo basin goes to the marketplace regularly, but the great individual freedom that governs Piaroa social and economic decisions makes it difficult to generalise about their trading choices. The only clear pattern is probably the flexibility of strategies that characterise both their agroforestry system and their market decisions. This flexibility is based on the diversity of fallow and forest species that compose most of their food and market choices. Table II shows a non-exhaustive list of the most important products sold in Puerto Ayacucho’s market in 2000, when more than 80% came from fallow and forest environments. Cassava was without doubt the staple most frequently sold in the marketplace, either as bread or flour. However, it
Fig. 7 Land cover around Gavilán in 1989 (6) and 1998 (7). The images illustrate the recovery of low-forest cover, points B and C, over a 9-year period and the recolonization of mature fallow lands (low forest) around the community, point A. Compare with Fig. 5, points A and D, for evolution of Creole clearing over a 36-year period. Landsat TM (path 4, row 56), 1989 and 1998, PCA, camp 1.
Table II Most Common Products Sold in Puerto Ayacucho’s Marketplace by Cataniapo Piaroa Farmers in 2000 Common name Banana (various) Big seje Birds Cassava Chili pepper Cucurito Game Mamure Manaca Papaya Peach palm Peach tomato Pineapple Small seje Timber products Piaroa Scientific name Use Location Sec. Forest Sec. For./Sav. Forest Garden Garden Sec. Forest Forest Forest Sec. Forest Sec. For./Gar. Sec. Forest Sec. Forest Sec. For./Gar. Sec. For./Sav. For./Sec. For Sec. Forest Garden
Paruru Bare pu’ori Ire Rate Wacha Kiyo wipo Menea Mapaya Pahare Nu’e Kana Pho pu’ori
Musa spp. Jessenia bataua Various Manihot esculenta Capsicum frutescens Atalea maripa Various Heteropsis spruceana Euterpe precatoria Carica papaya Bactris gasipaes Solanum sesilliflorum Ananas comosus Oenocarpus bacaba Various
Food Food Food, ornament Food Food-spice Food Food Fibre (fourniture) Food Food Food Food Food Food Construction, firewood, handicraft Food Food
Wild cacao Yam
Theobroma grandiflorum Dioscorea spp.
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generated little or no income due to the excessive harvest produced by most farming systems in the region (especially Piaroa, Curripaco, Hiwi and Creole). Cassava was, furthermore, the most labour demanding crop of Piaroa gardens, due to the complications of detoxifying and processing its roots, so it was sold periodically but in small amounts, generally corresponding to the family surplus. Cassava was often marketed to cover the cost of trips to the city for political or social purposes rather than for economic profit. Its commercialisation, however, represented a permanent and secure, though small, source of cash because it can produce continuous harvests and it can be stored ‘live’ (i.e., underground) for long periods. It was also important in the Piaroa diet and was hence the most prominent crop during the early years of their gardens, essential for the transition of the field to secondary forest. Fallow and forest products, on the other hand, had the best market value in terms of both labour invested and economic return, and they were without doubt one of the main sources of cash in peripheral communities. The commercialization of these products helped economise labour because during the fallow phases there was virtually no weeding, and most fallow crops needed little processing. Besides, most fallow crops were harvested over short periods, depending on the species’ flowering, which allowed families to get considerable amounts of cash in just a few market transactions. Fallow and forest products, moreover, gave Piaroa families a wider margin of manoeuvre regarding price fluctuations, since they did not rely on one staple only. Finally, fallow and forest products accounted for most of diversity in their diet, so market production focussed on this stage of their productive cycle assured them, at the same time, relative food security (see also Atran et al. 2002; Hamlin and Salik 2003). In fact, although food products bought in the market are very common in Cataniapo, these correspond mostly to “luxury” products— such as alcohol, soft drinks, and sweets—and in no way supersede traditional foods (cf. Melnyk 1995). Freshness is still predominant in their dietary choices. Although refrigerators had been installed in some communities with public electricity, such as Gavilán, these were mainly stocked with water, which was then distributed and used as a status marker. Refrigerators have certainly had a very little impact—if any— on their preference for immediate consumption and the role of food distribution in the formation of social relations. Regarding production, fallow plants can continue to yield for several years and leave abundant biomass after harvest so that agriculture can be sustained for much longer periods than in monocropping systems without jeopardizing the forest’s recovery. While cassava production lasts between 3 to 5 years, fallow production can last for 12 years or more, usually until nonuseful species are predominant in the plot, reducing the harvest’s profit. At this point, the plot generally has abundant biomass to support new gardening. In fact, studies in other parts of lowland South America have shown
that agroforestry and the extraction of non-timber forest products may well be the most profitable/environmentally viable market strategies for these environments (Current et al. 1995; Hecht 1992; Mendelsohn and Balick 1995; Peters et al. 1989; Posey 1992; Sanchez and Benites 1987; Sanchez et al. 1982, 1997; Tapia 1997; Zent 2001). The comparative advantage of a particular fallow or forest product could make an entire community concentrate its economic efforts on it. Extreme examples of fallow specialisation were found outside the Cataniapo basin, on the road connecting Puerto Ayacucho with the country’s heartland, to the north, in communities located in transition forests (on the savannah–forest ecotone). One of these communities is Betaña, where I carried out fieldwork in 1997. At that time, Betaña had focused its market transactions on pineapple, which most people planted intensively in the large, young fallows surrounding the community. Pineapple suppressed the aggressive weed growth of this ecotone due to its expansive and strong leaves, while the abundant vegetal residual of its harvest contributed to the growth of woody vegetation in secondary successions, constituting a good alternative to fight the quick advance of the savannah in this ecosystem. Most pineapples were sold on the side of the national road connecting Puerto Ayacucho with the north of the country and, at the time of my fieldwork, in a single harvest, from January to April, Betaña families could make almost seven times the minimum wage of Venezuela’s urban areas (about US$ 230 a month at that time). Communities from other regions, like Gavilán, could not benefit from pineapple production because the varieties of pineapple produced in the territory were rich in sugar and therefore difficult to commercialise due to their quick fermentation. Besides, pineapple is too heavy and its unit price too low to compensate the costs of transportation to the city market, so few communities were in a position to sell it. In Betaña, however, the predominance of pineapple in the composition of the fallows was such that in some cases it was difficult to know what was more intensively cultivated, the garden or the early stages of the fallow. In this way, the people of Betaña had turned the fragility of their environment to their advantage, reinforcing secondary growth while making considerable profits. Forest resources, on the other hand, were collected in periodic visits to their ancestral lands, about 15 km to the west. More recently, the people of Betaña acquired a pulp processor and started a pineapple juice micro-factory, which was promoted in President Chávez’s weekly TV show, Aló Presidente! Communities from the Cataniapo basin, for their part, settled on more traditional Piaroa areas, showed much more diversified market strategies, highly dependent on demand, availability of resources, and limitations of transportation to Puerto Ayacucho. San Pedro and San Pablo, at 2 to 5 h by boat from the nearest road, had a tendency to market forest
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resources more difficult to find in more accessible areas. In general products that had better weight/value relation for river transportation. Mamure (Heteropsis spruceana) and several palm fibres used for handicrafts only found in the upper basin were among the most valuable forest products at the time of my fieldwork. Sporadically, this trade also included valuable game, such as paca (Agouti paca), although most hunting was reserved to satisfy the family’s requirements. It is difficult, however, to estimate the annual contribution of Piaroa agroforestry to the local market, because of the great fluctuations that characterise their market participation and the big influence of political factors on their decisions. Community leaders can often obtain much more from Creole politicians than by marketing agricultural products. This is particularly egregious in electoral periods, which in Venezuela have become increasingly frequent during the last 10 years. In 1998, for example, the state governor seeking reelection created a series of new salaried positions in the indigenous communities, which in some cases doubled the amount of cash received by indigenous families via government wages. In an outburst of surrealism, the governor created the ‘Indigenous Police.’ It was a short-lived post that most Piaroa ‘policemen’ carried out from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. without the faintest idea of what their duties were. Their lives, of course, carried on as usual – except for the black uniforms– because their patrolling area often coincided with the lands of their extended family. In past elections (2005), the politicians ability to create false expectations among the indigenous population virtually emptied the street-market of Puerto Ayacucho the month preceding the polls because most family leaders were busy making public relations appearances with political candidates. They expected outboard motors, power plants, and other ‘donations’ in exchange for votes and political support. Each ‘donation,’ a common practice in Venezuelan politics, could be worth months if not years of agricultural work. The Piaroa’s preference for political lobbying over agricultural marketing was understandable. The local market, for its part, circumscribed by the Venezuelan economy, oil-based and saturated with corruption, has never created market conditions in which both Piaroa and the local Creole population find it profitable to exploit agroforestry beyond local levels of consumption. In 2000, for example, 20 rolls of mamure (Heteropsis spruceana, natural fibre used for furniture) were sold at half the minimum wage. A Piaroa family from San Pedro could easily market 20 rolls per week (most harvests were actually bigger), and the main limitation was the distance between the community and the sources of mamure—14– 20 km. Scarcity was never mentioned as a limiting factor, and most heads of family traded it whenever they had a clear goal in mind (such as buying a TV). Nevertheless, because mamure –and most forest valuables– are invariably
traded with Creole “trade-partners,” harvests were constrained by their buying capacity. Trade partners, for their part, were either state employees (teachers, nurses, politicians, etc.) or middlemen trading for the local market, with very little capital. This is not surprising considering that the central government is the single most important employer in the region, and the entire local economy relies on its capacity of consumption. Piaroa families, moreover, refused to sell forest valuables to ‘strangers’ [an attitude rooted in their traditional ideas of exchange (see Mansutti 1986)] so the chances of expanding the trading network were slim. Although apparently impractical in monetary terms trade-partnerships like these have been proved highly effective in imperfect market conditions, such as those of Venezuela’s Amazonia, because they minimise risk and reduce the impact of market fluctuations (cf. Granovetter 1985; Plattner 1989). Through these associations Piaroa farmers receive not only a return in cash but also the greater security of a family-like relationship. Creole trade-partners, for their part, use these associations to access to valuable forest resources banned for Creole farmers, and to secure political alliances and votes. These variables make it difficult to foresee the long-term impact of the Piaroa’s decisions with regard to market involvement. Nonetheless, their preference for productive strategies that reinforce food security and long-term viability is remarkable. More importantly indigenous farms like those described here are the only sustainable productive units in a state that in every other regard is totally dependent on central government spending. They are also the main source of local food for the more than fifty thousand people living in Puerto Ayacucho. Interestingly enough, while Venezuelan development plans classify their lands as poor and unproductive, and therefore dependent on externally planned development (CODESUR 1975; PRODESUR 1996), Cataniapo Piaroa often describe themselves as very fortunate people. More than forty years of sedentarism, booming population growth, and market production, have not changed their views of Cataniapo as a privileged basin because of its unique combination of ‘natural’ resources, abundant secondary forests, good soils, and proximity to national services and markets.
Conclusions As other Guianese societies, during the last three decades the Piaroa have reoriented their trade networks towards Creole settlements—mostly in the varzea zone—after more than 200 years of inland orientation (cf. Arvelo-Jiménez and Biord 1994; Butt-Colson 1973; Dreyfus 1983–1984; Thomas 1972). As most archaeological data suggest, the rearticulation of their trade relations around areas with high population
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densities and the settlement patterns associated with this process are probably more similar to pre-1492 patterns than they were 40 years ago, when the now classic ethnographies that have shaped our ideas of Amazonian societies and their productive systems were written. It is therefore necessary to revise our misrepresentations about the origins and economic viability of agroforestry in light of these new ideas, and relate these to governmental policies and current discussions about agroforestry and cultural change. The Piaroa example shows, at the very least, that the impact of cultural change is not uniform. More importantly, it shows that indigenous peoples’ responses may represent alternatives to the paradoxes of development in their traditional territories. This article has stressed that these responses are rooted in their agroforestal tradition, supporting observations made elsewhere in the lowlands that indigenous societies with strong agricultural backgrounds tend to maintain land use strategies that minimise risks and food insecurity in their approach to the market and national society—provided external conditions allow them to do so (cf. Atran et al. 2002; Rudel et al. 2002; Hamlin and Salik 2003). In the Piaroa case, the relative peace in which sociocultural change has taken place, added to the fact that so far they have not lost control over their lands in the process, or not in the dramatic ways described for other parts of Amazonia, have helped them develop their own strategies. Land rights are at the heart of the future viability of their decisions, as other Latin American examples have shown (cf. Gray 1994; Putsche 2000). Nevertheless, there are a number of visible threats to the Piaroa’s ability to respond to their future necessities and preferences. III-conceived development planning imposes development formulas on the indigenous population that, if successful, become the only alternatives to problems created by the same agricultural packages they promote. Indigenous peoples, as we have seen, do not necessarily adopt these programmes in response to their own needs and perceptions. Nonetheless, once adopted these challenge their ability to produce local responses to their increasingly globalised environments all the same. Hence, this article has stressed that if we agree that ecologically sustainable and socially equitable development must emerge from adaptation to local conditions, then we have to look at the strategies developed by communities undergoing culture change before ascribing to the mainstream idea that these processes are always associated to knowledge loss.
Acknowledgements I thank Peter Rivière, Stanford Zent, Stephen Nugent, Kay Tarble, Omar Tremont, Laura Martinez, Josep Gari, and Elisabeth Ssenjovu for aid and advice generously given during the realisation of this article or the thesis on which it is based (Freire 2002). The satellite images used in this article were generously provided by the Venezuelan Ministry of Environment, and the research was sponsored by the Fondo Nacional para el Avance de la Ciencia y la Tecnología (Venezuela), the Overseas Research Scheme (UK), and an Oxford University Overseas Bursary (UK).
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