Why is it that different scholars can analyze a subject as straightforward as the Piaroa food growing systems and arrive at diametrically opposite conclusions?

A few months ago, Germán N. Freire wrote an article on the ways the Piaroa living in villages near the city of Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela, successfully market sustainable forest products (reviewed in this website in October 2007). These villagers harvest products from swidden (shifting) garden plots that are reverting to forest land; they sell them in the city to produce a significant amount of regular income. Freire emphasizes that they continue to utilize quite effectively their traditional shifting agricultural techniques for most of their own food needs, but through their supplemental gathering efforts, they are able to supply a lot of the food to a city of 50,000 people.

He argues in that article that the Piaroa are wise to continue their traditional approaches to food production, which have had greater successes than the high-input agricultural methods advocated by experts and promoted by the Venezuelan government agencies.

However, a new journal article, to be published shortly in the journal Agroforestry Systems, completely contradicts those conclusions. The four authors, Tinne Van Looy et al, three of whom are in the Department of Land Management and Economics at the Catholic University Leuven, argue that the traditional swidden, shifting agriculture of the Piaroa has become unsustainable. They write that the periods of fallow, when the forest lands are supposed to recover from their agricultural uses, are not long enough, so the quantity of food production has declined.

Increased population among the Piaroa has created greater demands for food, they reason, which the farmers have a hard time meeting since they have to walk ever greater distances to get to their farming plots. Fires, plagues, diminishing agricultural productivity, and increased distances to their farms all point to “the unsustainability of the current agricultural system.”

The purpose of their current research work was to study the possibilities of indigenous people in Venezuela better utilizing and marketing Non Wood Forest Products, which the authors feel could diversify agricultural production systems as well as broaden human diets. Advanced agricultural systems, the basis for exploiting the underutilized forest crops, should replace simple collection techniques.

The four experts studied three villages located between 2.5 and 4.5 hours by boat from the port community of Samariapo, which is located on the Orinoco 60 km south of Puerto Ayacucho. Their research procedure was to identify 11 different indigenous agroforestry products that could be harvested by the Piaroa near their communities. The researchers wanted to figure out possible ways the people could expand the uses and distribution of those foods. The authors then focused on seven of those crops to analyze in detail.

Van Looy et al. argue that all seven potential crops would be worthwhile additions to the Venezuelan, and in some cases the world, markets for food products if they were distributed more effectively to a much wider customer base than they are presently. Guama, for instance, is a small, fruit-yielding tree that many people grow along the edges of their gardens. Its primary importance is its yield of fruit pulp and leaves, as well as its potential for fixing nitrogen in the soil. If it were more widely utilized, it could help improve the productivity of other crops grown in the Piaroa gardens. The fruits have a low value in vitamins, however.

Other potential crops—copoazu, Amazon grape, temare, manaca and peach tomatoes—all would add a lot of variety and vitamins to human diets. Some of these crops are harvested in the study communities, but except for guama, all could be marketed much more widely. However, some of them are difficult to get to market because they quickly spoil without refrigeration, while others are less perishable and could easily be marketed better. Furthermore, some of these crops could be sold in Europe, where people are increasingly concerned about eating healthy foods, which have low amounts of fats, salts, and sugars and high contents of vitamins and natural components.

One of the critical issues is that some of the crops the authors identify are not widely valued. Consumers need to be better informed about them. Seje fruit, one of their seven recommended species, could provide a cheap, healthy, alternative to imported olive oil. Peach palms produce palm hearts, another healthy food, which could be better marketed in the region.

Copoazu, a fruit produced by a shrub that lives naturally in primary forests, is also cultivated in secondary woodlands. The people of Amazonas State really like the copoazu fruits, which are high in vitamins, iron, and calcium, and they like the white chocolate produced from the seeds. Consumers in Puerto Ayacucho complain that not enough of the fruit is available in their markets.

A non-governmental organization is trying to increase the production of the copoazu fruit, though the authors indicate it is difficult to transport to the city markets. Also, not enough is being grown because the Piaroa farmers focus too much on their yucca production. The authors emphasize several times in their article that modern agroforestry needs to replace the swidden, slash and burn, unsustainable approach to food production still being used by the Piaroa.

Van Looy et al. argue that the Amazonas government should invest in a major overhaul of the marketing infrastructure in order to realize the potential of their forest food products. Transportation systems need to be organized, demand should be increased by providing better information to consumers, and supply chains need to be made more efficient. They conclude that these supply and infrastructural issues are important but equally significant is the supply shortage, “caused by the low and declining productivity of the yucca-oriented subsistence-based slash-and-burn system.”

Why the radically different conclusions between the two articles? Freire’s research is based on a high degree of respect for the traditional Piaroa approaches to farming; Van Looy et al. disparage the old ways.

Van Looy, Tinne, et al. February 15, 2008 [link alert date]. “Underutilized Agroforestry Food Products in Amazonas ( Venezuela): A Market Chain Analysis.” Agroforestry Systems. DOI 10.1007/s10457-008-9110-0. [Note: this journal article will appear in the published version of the Springer journal Agroforestry Systems in the near future.]