By Hannah Arledge
While regenerative agriculture has created buzz in recent years, many ideas that seem innovative or groundbreaking often harken back to indigenous ways of stewarding the earth. Thousands of years of cultivation and local adaptations have shown us that best practices are centered around respect and mutuality.
When we talk about regenerative agriculture, permaculture, or agroforestry, we are revisiting a way of interacting with the land that has been practiced by indigenous peoples since the beginning. In rural communities, reintegrating first nations’ agricultural traditions can restore food sovereignty, protect natural resources, and provide more nutritious foods for families.
What led to the abandonment of these practices in the first place?
European colonization was a biological expansion of all kinds. Colonists brought along with them farming techniques, language, disease, and crops to the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia. In order to keep up with new demands on agriculture by way of international markets and foreign crops, a new relationship with the land also developed. Centered around ownership and production, the physical landscape was transformed: fences demarcated land-holdings, oversupply of non-native food sources reshaped local diets, foreign animals like horses altered landscapes and flora, and farming focused on large scale monoculture production to meet the demands of a global market. The allure of new wealth drove the extraction and exploitation of resources and human labor, devastating the land and people groups with many expressions of violence; removing indigenous knowledge, native biodiversity, and food sovereignty in the process.
Reinstating indigenous knowledge in our methods of regenerative agriculture begins to rebuild healthy cultural and environmental cycles that benefit both the land and communities.
In a global study published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, research revealed a positive correlation between high cultural and ecological diversity in biodiversity hotspots. The researchers investigated the correlation between linguistic and biological diversity specifically, and determined that “indigenous economies and management practices essentially enable high biological diversity to persist.” Furthermore, indigenous presence in a given area actually has an equal to if not beneficial impact on biodiversity in a region. The study concludes with emphasizing the importance of preserving local cultural diversity when pursuing large-scale ecosystem conservation. Thus, a successfully holistic approach to regenerative agriculture would include restoring all varieties of native diversity, cultural and ecological.
Let’s look a little closer at some methods that have survived the test of time and influence our definition of regenerative agriculture today.
When some of our San Diego-based team members visited our partners in Mexico, we were introduced to a tradition called milpa. The milpa system is an ancient Mayan intercropping practice resulting in plots cultivated for over 4,000 years, and still practiced today across Mexico and into Central America.
Traditionally, the three main milpa crops are maize, beans, and squash. Otherwise known as the Three Sisters, these pre-Columbian crops build the foundation of ancestral Mesoamerican diets as well as regenerative agriculture practices.
Maize is an open pollinator which means it relies on the wind to spread its seeds. For this reason, maize grows well in areas where it can spread widely among crops that will benefit from a kind of mutualism, such as the beans and squash. The beans function as nitrogen fixers, pulling nitrogen from the air and depositing it into the soil. Maize pulls the nitrogen through its roots as it grows and provides a pole for the beans to vine upwards while the beans support the maize stalk. The squash provide ground cover, keeping the soil cool and moist. When these crops work together on the same plot of land, they create a perfect soil habitat for many other species of chiles, coffee, and cacao.
These plants are not only complimentary in the garden, but they round each other out nutritionally. When eaten together, maize and beans create a complete protein, providing all necessary amino acids and reducing the mass of food required to meet dietary needs.
Monocrops Hurt Production Long Term
As various government policies have incentivized the production of cash crop monocultures, people's ability to grow enough food to support themselves has declined. This impacts food-security, nutrient availability, income diversity and regenerative agriculture collapse. Conventional farming is often favored over milpa by farmers today because public perception believes that milpa has a high labor demand. Perhaps this is a correct evaluation, but data suggests that milpa is actually less involved than maintaining a maize monoculture. Moreover, redirecting the labor focus to weed management, soil, and seeds can translate to four to eight years of continued high-yield cropping.
A study of produce in Oaxaca showed monoculture beans lacked vitamins A, B12, and C, while monoculture maize lacked A, B9, B12, and C. The milpa, in comparison, had greater food volume per area and provided all nutrients (except B12) for at least two people per hectare. In theory, this food security would discourage out-migration, thus keeping the available working population in the area to share the labor of the farming operation.
A group of women in Chiapas, Mexico partnered with the organization Slow Food International to establish milpa in their communities and provide their families with local, nutritious food. By increasing the volume of sustainably grown indigenous corn, they stimulate their tostada production chain and increase visibility and awareness for the crucial role of women in the community. Additionally, the milpa is an opportunity to share and protect their soil, cultural identity, and generational wisdom.
Regenerative Agriculture Fuels Biodiversity
One of the greatest long-term strengths of a system like milpa is its restoration of biodiversity. Across Mexico, there are about sixty native varieties of maize alone, bred and selected every year. For those in rural poverty, milpa biodiversity builds crop resilience and nutrient density. Milpa traditionally does not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, posing no threat to polluting groundwater supply. Additionally, milpa plots demand significantly less space than industrial farms, they support woodland ecosystems, and are highly adaptable to fit in a backyard garden or at any elevation.
If you’ve been around Plant With Purpose for a while, you’re likely familiar with this variety of farming that our partners practice. Long before the modern version of agroforestry was outlined, people the world over were living within systems of preservation and production in forested regions. And unsurprisingly, an incredible example can be found in the world’s largest rainforest.
Chagra is a dynamic agroforestry system practiced by indigenous peoples in the northwestern Colombian Amazon. This system includes many processes that work together to accompany the ever-changing dynamics of a forest ecosystem, focusing most on the reciprocal nurturing of man and nature to supply community needs.
A key tenet of Chagra is gradual transformation: that anything taken or destroyed from the natural environment is restored another way. The Chagra is not seen exclusively as a way to cultivate the forest, but a culmination of hunting, fishing, and harvesting altogether. After a couple years of cultivation, the cultivated plot is migrated to a new location to allow the Amazon to recover the plot, reforest, and prevent erosion.
Uitoto researcher Tomás Román articulates the integration of Chagra this way:
“The area of the primary forest is cleaned from weeds, and then the trees are felled. Once dry, the chopped trees are burned. The biodiversity that was alive in the primary forest is burned and serves as fertilizer for planting vegetables, fruit trees, and all the plants that are cultivated in the Chagra. The vision and mission is to enrich the primary forest much more than it was used; therefore, all the species that have been destroyed when the Chagra was made should be replaced and improved.”
His explanation of Chagra mentions a variety of swidden agriculture which works largely to make nutrients available to plant life through ash by burning the small twigs and leaves where the natural fertilizer is stored.
Often, women are chagreras, the farmers responsible for maintaining and cultivating the field. Mothers pass their knowledge onto the daughters, teaching them how to choose and distribute seeds, and especially to care for the cassava plant. They will sow the Chagra in a spiral formation mirroring the spiral cast of the fishermen, placing plants that require fewer nutrients on sloped areas and those needing the most nutrients on the plains. One hectare of Chagra can sustain a family, with generally over 35 varieties of vegetables planted on the plot.
The Chagra tradition provides communities with food sovereignty, maintains soil fertility, and preserves biodiversity from conviction of the circular relationship between human and nature. However, the proximity of indigenous communities to cities has threatened Chagra biodiversity with pressure to produce cash crops due to the lack of interest and market for indigenous foods. This in turn decreases the Chagra’s ability to satisfy community food needs and demands greater extraction methods on the land in order to survive. As a result, many young people living on these reservations are forced to leave and work in dangerous, unregulated conditions for the gold mining industry.
Organizations like the Sinchi Amazon Institute of Scientific Research are actively seeking ways to preserve the rich tradition, biodiversity, and peoples that rely on Chagra. Chagra’s Fairs give market and economic alternatives for indigenous food products, as well as work to conserve the rainforest by giving Chagra farmers reason to continue sustainable practices on their plots. Increasingly, chefs across Colombia including Luz Beatriz Vélez of Abasto in Bogota are incorporating native ingredients like guatila, or “poor man’s potato,” into high cuisine. She says, “If we still feel shame in serving a tamal or a cubio at a restaurant, we are headed nowhere. Each of us has to feel the pride, the joy through cooking.”
Changing the perception of native foods allows indigenous communities to continue practicing Chagra in a modern world, and taking a cue from their forest management widens our scope of solutions to move us globally towards greater food and environmental stability.
Restoration is integrative
A key part of environmental restoration for our Purpose Groups is spiritual renewal. Our responsibility to steward and protect creation links our mutual well-being, connecting the secular and spiritual significance of healing our soil and food systems. When we transition out of a mindset that solely looks at land for output, and move into one that looks at creating a loop of low-input sustainable energy, a plot of land has many more possibilities.
The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative articulates this relationship well: “We see that protecting rainforests is part of a larger moral fabric that includes social and economic justice, respect for human rights and human dignity, and achieving peace and equality.” When soil, plants, and animals are restored to behave in the way they were created, our communities benefit from living and working within a cycle that was intended to sustain.
Articulating the heartbeat of indigenous leadership in environmental efforts, Waoroni leader Nemonte Nenquimo’s “A letter from the Amazon: You destroy what you do not understand” writes this:
“What I can say is that it has to do with thousands and thousands of years of love for this forest, for this place. Love in the deepest sense, as reverence. [The forest] has taught us how to walk lightly, and because we have listened, learned and defended her, she has given us everything: water, clean air, nourishment, shelter, medicines, happiness, meaning.”
Restoring forests, land, and communities is what we seek to do-- and gratefully, we do not need to start from scratch.
To learn more about the necessary elevation of First Nations’ voices in response to the climate crisis and land management, read this story.
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