The biodiversity of the forests in the Amazon and worldwide is not only important as a refuge for native species or as a storage facility for greenhouse gases. It can also be viewed as a global granary that plays an important role in the food security of the planet, say two Brazilian researchers.
Bernardo Flores and Carolina Levis from UFSC (Federal University of Santa Catarina) address the subject in an article in this week’s issue of Science, one of the most important in the world. Both base their analysis on interdisciplinary scientific work that has gained critical mass in recent decades and shows that the diversity of plant species in the forest is far from being 100% “natural”.
In fact, according to such studies, human presence has turned many of the rainforests into huge orchards where it is much easier than expected to find plants as food, medicine or raw material for Homo sapiens.
In the case of the Amazon, this process has resulted in 85 species of plants (most of them fruit trees) being more or less domesticated. Such plants are much more common than the average species in the region and are found in 70% of the Amazon basin (versus 47% for non-domesticated tree species).
All of this makes the Amazon Basin one of the most important centers of origin of agriculture in prehistory, with global contributions such as cocoa and cassava. In places like the Tapajós National Forest, for example, there is a clear link between tree species with edible fruits and the presence of ancient indigenous settlements that are now deserted – the number of these species increases near the ancient villages and decreases as the visitor walks away them.
The researchers note that similar scenarios exist in places like tropical Africa, the island of Borneo and Papua New Guinea. In all of these places, the diversity of the plants domesticated and cultivated in the forest is a crucial element in the food security of the local population. However, the same places are also attacked by commercial agriculture and mass production of one or a few raw materials.
Would it be possible to increase the economic competitiveness of “orchards” so that they are no longer replaced by soy, cattle and oil palms?
“Things are still at the beginning, but there is enormous potential to integrate this variety of foods into production chains,” says Flores. “Of course there are cases like açaí and Brazil nuts, but it would be important to expand the range of species.”
This is because the diversity of food sources is one of the main strengths of traditional forest nutrition, which is reflected in a diversity of nutrients and thus in better nutrition. “This could combine production that preserves the diversity of the forest with a healthy diet, which can attract consumers who take care of both issues,” says Levis.
For this to work, however, it is imperative to take into account the traditional knowledge of the local population, who have a wealth of information and practices on how to properly manage the forest. “Food and health systems are not only utilitarian – they contain other values and are an important part of the cultural life of these population groups,” explains the researcher.
And in many cases the knowledge of useful vegetables stored by these cultivation systems threatens to disappear. The couple cites another recent study that mapped the relationship between the languages of the native population and knowledge of medicinal plants. Often, knowledge about a particular plant is limited to just one indigenous language. If this language is no longer spoken – which is happening faster and faster in the Amazon and elsewhere – then medical knowledge will also disappear. “