Symbols of ingenuity and adaptation, Native American agricultural techniques brought up to date

Slash-and-burn, raised fields, Waru Waru... From Guyana to Peru, agricultural techniques dating from the pre-Columbian era are being brought up to date – successfully – to fight against drought, frost or poor soils . These skills, forgotten or unfairly criticized, are a reminder of the incredible ability of Native American populations to adapt.

Aerial view of a Waru Waru, imposing circle-shaped geoglyphs and an ancestral agricultural technique, in a field in the Acora region, Peru, February 6, 2024. © JUAN CARLOS CISNEROS / AFP

By: Igor Strauss


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To reach the abatis lost in the middle of the forest, you have to leave Maripasoula, a small town in the southwest of Guyana, on the banks of the Maroni River. The journey begins in 4X4 on a waterlogged track. It continues on foot, on a path that is difficult to identify due to the density of the vegetation. After half an hour of walking under a vast forest cover, we finally glimpse a patch of cloudy sky. On an area the size of a small football field, the forest has been razed.

We are in the home of Bernadette

, a Native American woman in her forties. On the ground, charred tree trunks make circulation difficult. They were burned to enrich poor soil and enable agricultural practice. Difficult, for an untrained eye, to differentiate

between the original vegetation and cultivated plants



the principle of an abattis

is to cut down and burn the forest of a plot to cultivate it, then to let nature take its course and plant, here and there, different species. So, Bernadette becomes a guide. It shows cassava and sweet potatoes on the edge of the forest, fruit trees and banana trees below. A little further up, sugar cane. Each species was planted on part of the plot, carefully chosen by Bernadette. This offal is her “store”, from which she comes to pick, every day, the food she needs. Enough to live on for a whole year with your family and even sell part of the crops.

But it is also and above all its pride, its cultural heritage. She discovered this practice as a child, when her family was still nomadic. Because cultivating giblets requires constant movement. It is only usable for two to three years, because after that,

the land is no longer rich enough

to allow a harvest. It is therefore necessary to leave it fallow for at least eight years, and start again a little later. In Guyana, the abandonment of this practice coincides with the settling of Amerindians. Bernadette, for her part, is trying to perpetuate this tradition thanks to a second fallow crop, which she will cultivate as soon as the previous one no longer yields.

In Guyana, to join her family, Bernadette must go deeper into the forest. © RFI / Igor Strauss

The origin of slash-and-burn cultivation

To trace the origins of this type of slash-and-burn cultivation, you must leave Maripasoula and go to Cayenne. Inexhaustible on the subject,

Guillaume Odonne, researcher at the CNRS

, recalls, in the preamble, that according to scientific studies, the oldest occupations of the Amazon date back around 8,000 years and

those of Guyana

5,000 years. For a few thousand years, Native Americans were the only inhabitants of the Amazon.

Their population reached ten million inhabitants, before the European invasion and the microbial shock decimated 90% of it. For archaeologists, this population density is a source of questions: how did the Native Americans manage to feed such a large number of people on such poor soil?

Citing research carried out over the last thirty years by Brazilian teams, Guillaume Odonne speaks of the major modification of the structure of the soil, by the addition of charcoal, which gave what is called

terra preta do Indio

 – “the black earth of the Indians”. In fact, the porous structure of coal makes it possible to retain mineral salts in the soil that are usually washed away by rain. These two techniques, along with slash and burn, allowed the development of agriculture.

Slash and burn, responsible for deforestation?

During the 2000s, slash-and-burn was called into question. For some, this technique is responsible for part of deforestation. Its environmental sustainability was therefore raised, as was its carbon footprint. “

When you cut down 40 hectares of forest to plant pineapples or soya, it is clearly not sustainable. And that releases carbon. On the contrary, a small area, with a good fallow period, could be a carbon sink!

», says Guillaume Odonne.

To support his hypothesis, the researcher recalls that it is during its period of rapid growth, during the first ten or fifteen years, that a forest is a real carbon sink. With the felling technique, we therefore allow the forest to regenerate and fully play its role. On the other hand, by burning the cut wood, we allow the carbon from the coal to be captured by the soil, which is also a particularly interesting technique.

Slash and burn, an unprofitable and outdated practice?

With the settling of Amerindian and Bushinengué populations – the former slaves of Suriname and Guyana – slash-and-burn cultivation is losing momentum. At the same time, Guyana is experiencing a demographic boom which is calling into question its food autonomy. The question of the relevance of culture on giblets is therefore raised again. But not for Damien Davy, anthropologist at the CNRS: “

When I hear that it’s not profitable and that it’s outdated, I jump!

» A fervent defender of this ancestral practice, he adds: “

Giblets are organic, short-circuit, with extraordinary agricultural diversity! It is one of the best forms of agriculture adapted to Amazonian soil. And today, the challenge is to produce locally for food autonomy.


On the side of Maripasoula, this landlocked town lost in the middle of nature, the question that archaeologists once asked comes back like a boomerang: without the abattis, how can we cultivate on such infertile soil, to feed an ever-increasing population? There is no breeding, therefore no natural input. Bringing fertilizer by plane or canoe is not economically profitable. A situation which makes Guyana too dependent on imports from the mainland. What if ultimately, this ancestral technique of slash-and-burn cultivation represented the future?

Farming on raised fields

Another challenge faced by Native American populations: agriculture in flood-prone areas. There are only two techniques for cultivating such areas. One is European, “land reclamation”, which consists of drying up a plot of land using a network of canals. The other is Native American, it is cultivation on raised fields.

Archaeologist Stéphen Rostain

, a specialist in the Amazon, has extensively documented this practice which was very common around the Amazon in the pre-Columbian era.

This technique is exactly the opposite of a polder. Instead of digging to drain the water, mounds are built above the flood level, with an important advantage: the fertile materials present on the surface of the water are deposited on these mounds and enrich the earth. In the event of excessive flooding, the Amerindians could also dig canals at the foot of the mounds to avoid submersion. This formidable know-how gradually disappeared with the arrival of the Europeans.

Waru Waru, an agricultural technique from the Andes

But according to Guillaume Odonne, this technique is used again today, around Lake Titicaca, in Peru and Bolivia, to deal with the increase in floods caused by global warming. They are called “Waru Waru”, which means “litter” in the Quechua language (Inca language which has become the official language of Peru). Seen from the sky, they look

like huge circle-shaped geoglyphs


But more closely, they are the trace of a 2000-year-old pre-Hispanic technique, which farmers in the Andean highlands, on the border between Peru and Bolivia, perpetuate to face the climate crisis. It is a set of channels one meter deep, dug inside a circle, to allow water to circulate and absorb heat from the sun during the day, then release it during the night when the temperature drops. An ingenious system that helps fight both frost and drought.

The soils of the altiplano are poor, dry and not very conducive to agricultural activity, but thanks to this technique, "

which makes it possible to fight against frost, to fertilize the soil, to generate microclimates, farmers

harvest apples from earth and quinoa

,” says archaeologist Velko Marusic, from the Ministry of Culture of the Puno region.

The Waru Waru cannot be flooded during rainy periods, because they have an intelligent drainage system that joins the river. Conversely, when the Puno region of Peru experienced one of its worst droughts in six decades due to lack of precipitation, they were very beneficial. Abandoned by the Inca Empire in the 15th century, this technique is resurfacing today, with unexpected results to combat climate change.

Slash and burn, raised fields, Waru Waru... All these different agricultural techniques show that the Amerindians did not possess ancestral knowledge, but a range of knowledge to adapt to their environment. While we are experiencing the full brunt of the effects of global warming which are forcing us to adapt, these Native American techniques, if not duplicated, remain a magnificent symbol of their past resilience.

Read alsoClimate change: Andean farmers resist thanks to ancestral practices


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