The Piaroa grow food in temporary gardens which support a growing population, supply them with good nutrition, and provide more income than modern, high-input agriculture would. Germán N. Freire carefully explains why in an upcoming journal article. His basic argument is that the Piaroa find their traditional swidden (shifting) agricultural pursuits to be quite effective.

He bases his research on a year of field work, from 1999 to 2000, when he gathered family stories, garden plot histories, landscape vegetation trends, and folk categories of plant communities in several Piaroa villages. He also studied census data and a wide range of other information sources.

He explains that the Piaroa are fortunate in that they have not lost their lands; their encounters with modern, mainstream society have not been too traumatic. They are very close to their forest environment, which is essential to their social memory, according to the author. Human health depends, in the view of the Piaroa, on a close relationship between the spirits of the ancestors and the forests in which they live. For them, the forests have been an integral part of both their food supply network and their nonviolence.

Traditionally, as Piaroa settlements became older and garden plots had to be abandoned, they built huts in more distant places, near more recently cleared land. A settlement might have a number of huts at greater and lesser distances. Eventually, one of these distant locations would be chosen as the new site for the village to move to. But in the meanwhile, the distant huts would serve a defensive purpose—so people who refuse to fight could quickly move away to a new location if the main village was threatened by outsiders.

An important aspect of the Piaroa economy is that they effectively utilize their forests for food and products. This practice contradicts much of the received wisdom of contemporary agricultural thought, as exemplified by the approaches of the government of Venezuela. Supported by outside experts, it feels that indigenous people need to modernize their agriculture by adopting such strategies as high-input, fertilizer-based, monocropping. The government believes they should adapt to the needs of the modern, market-based, economic system.

The author suggests that the Piaroa have a better approach. He discusses some Piaroa villages in the Cantaniapo river valley, a tributary of the Orinoco near the Amazonas state capital of Puerto Ayacucho, where modern farming techniques have failed and traditional practices are highly successful. Since their villages now are mostly stationary, the Piaroa in the Cantaniapo tend to have concentric rings of gardens and re-growing forest plots, some of which may require a fair amount of walking to get to.

The men still do most of the slashing and burning, plus all of the planting of crops, while the women do most of the processing; but gender roles are not as distinct as they once were. The complexity and sophistication of their management is impressive. They plant many different varieties of cassava in their gardens, and they continue to farm them for three to five years, until weeding becomes too onerous and they need to be abandoned.

The fallow, reverting-to-forest, land is not really abandoned, however—it provides more varieties of food than the cultivated fields. The reverting forest lands are important locations for fishing, hunting and gathering. Freire indicates that 54 out of the 65 plants that the Piaroa consume in the Cantaniapo valley are taken from the fallow, re-foresting lands. He discusses one village of 269 people, where most of the hunting occurs within a 14 km radius. For each acre of cultivated land in that community, the people use food and forest products from about four acres of fallow land.

The Piaroa have found that woody plants in the re-vegetating forest lands are softer and easier to use than the wood collected from older forests. These secondary forests continue to serve their needs for 15 years or more, and visiting them, even if they are a significant distance away, helps reaffirm their ownership.

Since the Piaroa communities in the Cantaniapo Valley are quite near Puerto Ayacucho, they have been patronizing the markets in the city for many decades. While the cassava from their gardens is their staple food product, and is sold in the market as flour or bread, it generates little cash income since it is such a common product in the region. But their ability to find valuable forest products has gained them a ready source of cash in the markets. Because many of these forest plant products have brief harvesting times, the Piaroa can sell them for premium prices. They recognize the supply and demand situations and they sell them to their best economic advantage.

The author notes that while the Cantaniapo Piaroa have access to all of the commercial foods that are available in the city—such as soft drinks, sweets, and alcohol—they tend to view them as luxuries only. They still prefer fresh foods from their gardens and forests. While commercial electricity is now available at the major villages in Cantaniapo, Piaroa with refrigerators in their homes use them primarily to store cold water—a prized commodity and a marker of status.

In a fascinating reversal of the usual arguments about high-input, “green revolution” agriculture, the author makes it clear that the Piaroa farmers, by utilizing swidden gardening and forest products, are able to provide the 50,000 people in the city with the bulk of their food. Freire writes that the indigenous farms “are the only sustainable productive units” in a state where government central planning controls the agricultural system. His astonishing conclusions cap an interesting, informative article.

Freire, Germán N. August 13, 2007 (link alert date). “Indigenous Shifting Cultivation and the New Amazonia: A Piaroa Example of Economic Articulation.” Human Ecology DOI 10.1007/s10745-007-9120-y. Paper issue in press. [Note: this journal article will appear in the paper version of the Springer journal Human Ecology in the near future, but it is now only available in their “Online First Publications” system, which is explained on the Springer website. In essence, the article is set to publish, with everything established except pages, date, volume, and issue numbers. Otherwise, there will be no changes.]