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Tending the Peruvian Amazon: Planting Seeds of Reciprocity Between Human and Earth

Aerial view of bends in the Amazon River in Peru. | DeAgostini/Getty Images
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Without a doubt, one of the many durable legacies that the year 2020 will bestow upon humanity is that of a pattern interrupt, a stop sign to globalization’s scorched-earth march towards relentless industrialized productivity. This moment in time is the fertile, uncertain ground between an inhale and an exhale, where the seeds of what is to come are ready to be planted. Here, in this state of suspended animation, the power of turning our collective attention towards a willingness to drastically transform the way we relate to the Earth, to our environment, cannot be overstated. 

Watch a preview of the third season of "Tending Nature," which focuses ojn acknoledgement of Indigenous presence and the reciprocal relationship between human and Earth.
Tending Nature Season 3 (Preview) Media Manager

The seeds that we hold in our hands now, the ones we are being invited to plant, speak of a sea-change: namely, evolving from a subject-object, extractive and commodified domination of our planet, to that of a subject-subject relationship, based in respectful reciprocity and participation. It’s clear that the occidental mindset of Darwin’s virulent “survival of the fittest” principle has long run amok. An unwillingness to recognize this will only catalyze our extinction as a species. Yet, for all our fears of letting go of this prevailing culture of unchecked consumerism and exploitation, of moving into the mysteries of uncharted territory that the planting of these seeds will bring to root, we have treasure troves of wisdom, as old as the Earth, waiting to guide us. 

Many of these repositories of wisdom can be found in the Amazon, in the rich lineage of land-stewardship from this area’s diverse Indigenous peoples. Even while these fertile lands continue to be ravaged by aggressive agro-industries, there are grassroots, community nonprofits and NGOs doing the work of Earth’s wisdom-keepers, preserving, practicing and teaching the ways that will, if we listen and learn, ensure not only the survival of our species, but propagate the biodiverse thriving of all species, as a web of interconnectedness. 

An extremely tall tree near the Chaikuni Institute's permaculture center in the Amazon. | Courtesy of Chaikuni Institute
An extremely tall tree near the Chaikuni Institute's permaculture center in the Amazon. | Courtesy of Alienor de Sas/Chaikuni Institute

In the jungles of Peru, one such organization that has been quietly pioneering this sort of work since 2012 is the Chaikuni Institute. Founded and based in the Loreto region, the organization is the non profit arm of the Temple of the Way of Light, an Amazonian plant medicine healing and retreat center. As such, the Institute is the beneficiary of 100% of the Temple of the Way of Light’s profits, and is able to carry out the work of marrying permaculture and Indigenous land-management practices on 220 hectares of the Temple’s land.

The word chaikuni, from the language of the Shipibo people, invokes their generational and spiritual forebears, also regarded as the guardians of the Peruvian Amazon. This is no mere lip service. In my conversation with Silvia del Aguila Reyna, the Institute’s permaculture and community outreach coordinator, it became clear that the practices taught and propagated by the organization have deep roots in Peru’s Indigenous ancestry. As an example, del Aguila Reyna’s people, originally from the remote, higher elevation Cloud Forests, are descendants of the Lamista tribe from the San Martin region, where the family of languages known as Quechua is spoken. Del Aguila Reyna was born in Iquitos, after her family migrated down to the lower elevation forest areas. A rich lineage of tending to and working with the land was passed down to del Aguila Reyna from her mother, which, along with her training and education as a forestry engineer — among other qualifications — she uses synergistically in her work at the Chaikuni Institute. 

This synergy is a distinguishing feature of the organization: the blend of traditional ecological knowledge with the modern practices of permaculture. Specifically, this model marries the Indigenous agricultural practice known as chacras integrales, a “holistic farm” with a focus on productivity through biodiversity, alongside the permaculture method of Agrofloresta, or agroforestry, from Brazil. 

Aerial view of a chakra integral at Chaikuni Institute. | Courtesy of Chaikuni Institute
Aerial view of a chakra integral at Chaikuni Institute. | Courtesy of Alienor de Sas/Chaikuni Institute

A chacra is a plot of land that can be used to cultivate crops. Unfortunately, the presence of aggressive agro-industries in the Amazon, with their emphasis on mass production through soil-degrading monoculture practices, has led to the preponderance of the aptly — and alarmingly — named “slash-and-burn” technique. Here, the area of forest to be used for mass monoculture cash-crop production is torn down and then burned. As Sophia Rokhlin, the Institute’s communications representative explained, the short-term benefit of this is that the soil is made arable for the crops to be successfully planted: the burning leaves behind a cake layer of ash that renders the land fertile for a certain period of time. This slashing and burning can continue for perhaps two or three cycles, until the soil is completely depleted of nutrients and microorganisms, with significant loss of biodiversity. The chacra, after being used in this way, is then abandoned, and needs about a decade to regenerate itself. Every year, an estimated 1.4 million hectares of land in the Amazon are destroyed in this way. Short-term economic benefits give way to long-term loss of biodiversity, soil degradation and dependence on exploitative mass markets that fundamentally thrive on maintaining entrenched socio-economic poverty in places like the Amazon. According to the Institute, “Ecologists predict that this continued trend will transform the region into barren scrubland unless action is taken to reform this method of land use.” 

Here, it’s worth paying attention to a pertinent metaphor, given the COVID-19 times we’re in: the Amazonian jungles and rainforests are the lungs of our planet, the Earth’s respiratory system. The macro-micro implications of that are urgent and significant.

The chacras integrales method of tending to and collaborating with the land as a system of holistic reciprocal partnership is an old, Indigenous way that has been used in the Amazon basin for generations. According to del Aguila Reyna, the method arose out of “the need and desire for people to create spaces that they could live on, where they could also plant sustainable, integrated and different crops or cultivars, medicines and other plants” that supported the rich biodiversity of the land. As an example, del Aguila Reyna’s family came from remote areas, with no access to commercially produced food — so they had to grow and cultivate it themselves, which they did, using the chacras integrales system. They planted and grew everything they needed, including sugar cane, rice, corn, fruit, and vegetables, while keeping small animals like chickens. 

In this way, they were self-sustaining, as well as living in collaborative reciprocity with the land — nourishing and promoting its health and biodiversity, while being able to live off its gifts, which is also a governing principle of permaculture. “A chacra integral is a place where many different plants are planted, in the most biodiverse way, that also regenerates and nourishes the land, feeds back into the land,” del Aguila Reyna says. ”This is where it aligns with the fundamentals of permaculture, including intimately understanding soil topography, the way the water runs through it, [etc.].”

An individual digs their hands in the earth at Chaikuni's permaculture center. | Courtesy of Chaikuni Institute
An individual digs their hands in the earth at Chaikuni's permaculture center. | Courtesy of Alienor de Sas/Chaikuni Institute

Rokhlin describes the initial experience with chacras integrales as a sort of “messy forest.” But, she continues, “When you become familiar with the plants, and have an understanding of them, you see that there’s a specific logic and pattern to the way that all these plants are arranged, cultivated and organized.” This again dovetails with the system of permaculture, supporting the notion of it being an essentially Indigenous science, or a modern framing of traditional ecological practices.

The organic inclusion of permaculture practices bolsters the work that Chaikuni Institute is doing with the dissemination of the chacras integrales method as a way to counteract, counterbalance and heal the damage caused by the slash-and-burn mass monoculture agro-industries. The Institute has been offering the traditional 180-hour permaculture design courses (PDCs) to Indigenous community leaders, youth leaders and community elders who live in active relationship with the land.

“We actually find that there’s an extremely rich synergy between the permaculture practices, and the traditional ecological knowledge of these Indigenous peoples that potentially otherwise may have been lost,” explains Rokhlin. She recalls the inspiring story of a young woman, about 15 years old, who, during a PDC, came up to the white board where participants were drawing different potential arrangements within a chacra integral. This young woman closed her eyes, and started drawing, from some deep, old, living memory, the way that her grandmother used to arrange the land. 

Without the contextual framework of permaculture, coaxing this memory out of her, this essential wisdom would likely have been forgotten and gone extinct. 

Aerial view of bends in the Amazon River in Peru. | DeAgostini/Getty Images
Aerial view of bends in the Amazon River in Peru. | DeAgostini/Getty Images

Chaikuni Institute’s mission, particularly through the community outreach work done by people like del Aguila Reyna, seeks to demonstrate that the chacras integrales method, and the offering of supporting permaculture education, will have significant long-term benefits for the land, and also economically for the community. The Institute’s vision emerged from the need to create sustainable, regenerative solutions, where there is an honoring, and as we’ve seen, a remembering of valuable traditional agricultural practices with an emphasis on biodiversity. Their work so far has also shown that fair economic yield is possible for communities who are not living traditionally Indigenous, isolated lifestyles anymore, but actually participate in a market economy, with all the aspirations that entails. 

Indeed, the Institute has a clearly defined operational outline for its chacras integrales initiative:

  • Reforesting the Amazon with productive agroforestry systems
  • Generating income for local Amazonian families in the short, medium and long-term
  • Researching and producing knowledge on best permaculture practices
  • Community outreach and capacity building with rainforest communities
  • Supporting market access for rainforest communities
  • Educating on regenerative environmental practices
Notes written in Spanish from Chaikuni Institute's 2019 permaculture design course outlining the group's dream to build a chakra integral that produces food to sell and fund their children's education.  | Courtesy of Chaikuni Institute
Notes written in Spanish from Chaikuni Institute's 2019 permaculture design course outlining the community's dream to build a chakra integral that produces food to sell to fund their children's education. | Courtesy of Alienor de Sas/Chaikuni Institute

All of the above foster the subject-subject relationship between human and Earth, which can be summed up in the Quechua word ayni and the Shipibo word akinananti. Our closest English understanding of this would be “interconnectedness” and “reciprocity.” Actively living life in accordance with these principles is rooted in the timeless wisdom that no sentient being exists in isolation, but is always in dynamic dialogue with their environment. Being part of this web of interconnectedness brings with it a shared and mutual responsibility. Forgetting this is being ignorant of the truth that our seemingly separate, individual lives depend heavily on the health and well-being of the Earth and her biosphere. 

These seeds — the potential for creating a world lived in resonance with ayni, with akinanti – are what we hold in our hands now. The invitation to plant them is here. And we have the gift of looking to wisdom-keepers such as Chaikuni Institute, and its rooted partnership with the Shipibo, for guidance as we evolve and co-create a new phase of our collective story.

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