Seeing the Garden in the Jungle

Lately I’ve been lucky enough to teach permaculture courses on the Big Island of Hawai’i at La’akea Gardens. And at each course an odd thing happens. First, let me point out that La’akea generates all its own solar electricity, collects its water from rooftop catchment, uses composting toilets, recycles greywater, sheet mulches copiously, and has a mature food forest (intercropped with nitrogen-fixing trees, of course) hung so heavily with fruit that in five minutes I can fill a five-gallon bucket, in season, with avocados, citrus, abiu, papayas, or spike-skinned rolinias. And don’t get me started on all the different varieties of bananas and timber bamboo.

But regularly I hear new students or visitors say, “I’m disappointed that La’akea isn’t doing much permaculture.” The first few times that happened, I just stood there with my jaw hanging open, wondering how someone could miss something so obvious. However, I’ve finally figured out why people feel that way. It’s because La’akea doesn’t have many garden beds full of vegetables. And food is at the center of most people’s concept of permaculture. An obvious garden bursting with tomatoes, lettuce, and other favorite veggies screams “food production!” in a recognizable, comforting way. To the untrained eye, even one in the middle of an off-the-grid, food-forest paradise, no vegetables equals no permaculture. It’s a preconception so firmly ingrained that it takes the first few days of a tropical design course to shake it loose. But vegetables—especially familiar temperate ones like broccoli, lettuce, and peas—can be difficult to raise in the tropics. Other foods, such as tubers and tree crops, are much easier and more appropriate to grow.

Novice permaculturists aren’t the first to visit the tropics and mistake a lack of garden beds for a lack of food production. Until the late 20th century, western anthropologists studying both ancient and current tropical cultures viewed equatorial agriculture as primitive and inefficient. Archeologists thought the methods were incapable of supporting many people, and so believed Central and South America before Columbus—outside of the major civilizations like the Aztec, Maya, and Inca—held only small, scattered villages. Modern anthropologists scouted tropical settlements for crop fields—the supposed hallmark of a sophisticated culture—and, noting them largely absent, pronounced the societies “hunter gatherer, with primitive agriculture.” How ironic that these scientists were making their disdainful judgements while shaded by brilliantly complex food forests crammed with several hundred carefully tended species of multifunctional plants, a system perfectly adapted to permanent settlement in the tropics. It just looks like jungle to the naive eye.

Even those westerners who recognized the fantastic productivity of these tropical homegardens still had nothing good to say about the underlying rotational pattern that maintained fertility in tropical soils, the much maligned slash-and-burn system. I remember, as a grade-schooler, being taught this concept in words that soured my mouth: Ignorant villagers burn a patch of beautiful tropical forest, plant some annual crops, ruin the soil in just a few years of brutish scratching, and then are forced by their own stupidity to move to another section of virgin rain forest and burn it down in turn. The image combined the worst aspects of nomadic rootlessness, plundering of nature, and subhuman consciousness. Oh, the stupid savages!

As is often the case, the truth is far different. Slash-and-burn, technically referred to as swidden-fallow, has undergone a rehabilitation comparable to that of Stalin’s discredited dissidents when perestroika swept Russia. For swidden-fallow agriculture turns out to be a model for sustainable living in both tropical and temperate lands. Far from being a system of burning, depleting the soil, and walking away, it is a careful and complex form of high-yield permanent husbandry that yields diverse resources from a single patch for decades. Few anthropologists had the mindset, the patience, or a grant cycle lengthy enough to notice that the supposedly abandoned plots were anything but.

The word fallow—to rest a piece of land from cultivation—is familiar to most of us. Swidden, a less-encountered word, means a plot temporarily cleared of cover by burning. The details of the system vary across the tropics, so let’s look at a few examples.

Beyond the Three Sisters

The Lacandon, Ketchi, Huastec, and other Maya of Central American practice an intricate sequential agroforestry on plots called milpas that includes the famed trio of corn, beans, and squash. Since the process is a cycle, I must pick an arbitrary beginning point. We’ll start with the clearing of a fallowed plot. The farmers cut down most of the trees on a site, but spare many nitrogen fixers, timber trees, and good firewood species. Then they fire the remaining brush. The burning coats the soil with nutrient-rich ash, and cures the firewood trees, which are cut and later carried home on the return leg of planting visits.

Corn, beans, and squash fill much of the milpa the first two years or more, but after the first harvest, the farmers dig in seedlings of bananas, papayas, guavas, and other fruit trees, and interplant them with manioc, tomatoes, chiles, herbs, spices, other favorite food and fiber plants, and some native forest seedlings. Nitrogen-fixing and firewood tree seedlings (such as Gliricidia, which is both) weave a border around the plot. The three sisters and other annuals cover the remaining ground for a few more seasons, but over the next five to eight years, the fruit-tree canopy closes in, and the farmers stop planting annuals. That activity shifts to a new plot, but meanwhile, back at the milpa . . . new cycles begin. By now most anthropologists have gone home and are missing the rest of the picture.

In some spots, farmers pull out a few non-flowering trees and bring in beehives. They also coppice trees known to stump-sprout (often leguminous) and begin growing firewood or craftwood. The tree fruits attract game animals, which supply meat, skins, and feathers. Cattle, tied to large trees, forage amid the greenery. Some of the other originally spared trees become trellises for vanilla beans and other vines, which yield for 10 to 12 years. Fruit rains down.

About this time, when the canopy is furiously spreading to complete closure, the farmers begin directing the milpa toward its final stage in the cycle, the managed forest. Sometimes they’ll choose a particular set of tree species to spare: palms, or timber trees, or certain fruits, and develop a plantation or orchard. But more often they’ll nudge the milpa toward a heterogeneous and seemingly haphazard assortment of lightly cultivated trees enriched with useful understory species. This is what is usually called “fallow,” although these managed forests are yielding plenty.

The managed forests of the Huastec Maya in northeastern Mexico are packed with up to 300 plant species, including 81 species for food, 33 for construction materials, 200 with medicinal value, and 65 with other uses (the numbers add up to more than 300 since these are multifunctional plants). In these forests, Maya farmers often create different subpatches that concentrate specific guilds of domestic species (such as coffee guilds) amid a background of natives. And all the while, they are tucking small gardens of bananas, chiles, manioc, and other edibles into any clearings. The managed-forest stage may last for 10 to 30 years. Then the cycle begins anew. Since the whole process is rotational, any given area will hold swiddens and fallows at all different phases. This complexity would understandably delude a cornfield-programmed anthropologist into thinking he was looking at raw jungle.

Food Forests of the Bora

This sort of farming is widespread throughout the tropics. I’ll briefly give another example from the Bora Indians of eastern Peru in the Amazon Basin. The Bora clear small plots of forest, one-half to two acres in size, with axes and machetes. Again, they spare valuable timber and other useful trees such as palm and cedar. After drying for a couple of weeks, the fallen plants are burned. Next, the crops go in. The staple is manioc—the Bora cultivate 22 varieties of sweet and bitter manioc. Among the manioc they plant pineapple, corn, rice, peppers, cowpeas, bananas, peanuts, coca, and medicinal herbs. Clustered on higher ground are guava, avocados, cashews, peach palm, breadfruit, and many other fruit trees less familiar to us. Manioc and other annuals are replanted for several years, but by three years, the canopy cover reaches 30% and the annuals slow down. The fruit trees are beginning to yield.

By the time the swidden is six years old, the trees are crowded, so some are thinned out for timber or firewood. Others are coppiced. A few patches of coca and peanuts remain in deliberate small clearings, but elsewhere the canopy is completely closed. Over the next few years, the swidden is tweaked toward the orchard-fallow phase by selective cutting. For the next decade or two, food comes mostly from large breadfruit, palm, and macambo trees, while other species are used for thatch and timber. The Bora also take game and edible grubs from the maturing forest. Twenty to 40 years after the first clearing, the Bora begin the cycle again.

Both of these systems, and other similar techniques in Indonesia, the Philippines, Africa, and other tropic locales, show an intelligent blending of human stewardship with natural succession. After all, clearing a forest is hard work—why replant annuals every year when you can plant trees and be rewarded over twenty years instead of one? Combined with intensely cultivated dooryard gardens and occasional permanent cropland, the swidden-fallow system offers renewable resources over the long term. It’s not time-consuming work, either: People using these practices spend no more than two hours a day tending their plants. With food taken care of, only a couple more hours a day need be spent obtaining life’s other necessities, leaving plenty of time for leisure and art. Not a bad life.

Discovery of these immensely productive food forests has forced anthropologists to revise upward their guesses of how densely populated the Americas were before Columbus. And with their eyes now opened, they overturned another myth. We’ve all been told how terrible the Amazonian soil is: cut down the trees and you’re left with nothing. But at least 10%—possibly much more—of the Amazon Basin (an area the size of France) is covered with a rich black earth called terra preta. Terra preta soils hold their nutrients even in tropical downpours, and are rich with soil life. They seem to regenerate themselves, and were used by Amazonian Indians to inoculate less fertile soils, kick-starting nutrient cycles. They also last for many centuries. And terra preta, scientists have finally agreed, is human-made. Using nitrogen-fixing trees, permanent crop cover, deep mulching, manure, and other techniques so familiar to permaculture, the Amazonians built feet-thick soil over much of the basin.

Earth as a Garden

As researchers examine the Amazon more carefully, it appears that huge areas contain not only wild plants, but have been stocked with people-friendly cultivars of useful species. More and more, it looks as if the Amazon, like much of the Americas, was a carefully cultivated garden before the Europeans showed up and abused it into a thicketed wilderness. It appears that our idea of wilderness—black forest so dense you can barely walk, where people “take only photographs and leave only footprints”—is a notion burned into our psyches during an anomalous blip: the first two centuries following the Mayflower, in which the gardeners who had tended the Americas for millennia were exterminated, leaving the hemisphere to descend into an neglected tangle of “primeval forest.” It’s likely that this so-called intact forest had never existed before, since humans arrived here as soon as the glaciers receded and began tending the entire landmass with fire and digging stick. The first white explorers describe North America’s forests as open enough to drive wagons through. Two centuries later these agroforests had deteriorated to the black tangles immortalized by Whitman and Thoreau.

Wilderness may be merely a European concept imposed on a depopulated and abandoned landscape. The indigenous people of the Americas were master terraformers, using a hard-learned understanding of ecological processes to preserve the fundamental integrity of natural systems while utterly transforming the land into a place where humans belonged and could thrive. They were truly a part of nature, and likely did not make a distinction, as environmentalists do, between land where people belong and land where we do not. I’ll certainly agree that people carrying chainsaws and riding bulldozers don’t belong everywhere. But I’m beginning to think that gardeners, with gentle tools and sensitive spirits, have been and might again be the best planetary land managers the Earth can have.


  1. Alcorn, JB, 1990. Indigenous Agroforestry Systems in the Latin American Tropics, in Agroecology and Small Farm Development, Altieri M, and Hecht, SB eds.
  2. Denevan, WM et al, 1984. Indigenous Agroforestry in the Peruvian Amazon. Interciencia 9:346-355.
  3. Mann, CC, 2002. 1491. Atlantic Monthly, March 2002:41-54.

Copyright 2004 by Toby Hemenway.

(Published in Permaculture Activist No. 51)

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