Chagra (farm) cycle
Contrary to popular belief, the soil in the Amazon is not highly fertile. Over millennia, Indigenous communities have devised a sustainable way to cope with this: the chagra. To create the chagra, the community clears a patch in the dense jungle canopy by controlled burning. The ash and decaying matter that mixes with the soil, and the increased access to sunlight, creates the conditions for cultivated crops to grow. After a certain period, which varies depending on the location, the soil becomes depleted again. When this happens, the community abandons the chagra and begins the process elsewhere, allowing the jungle to grow back and the soil to recuperate.
Abel Rodríguez explains the process:
Chagra, three months.
“It is better to sow the yucca ﬁrst, above all, and then the tubers, those are the ﬁrst ones; from there you can plant grapes and caimo and then you can sow them and plant other fruit trees. You start on one side and work your way forward so that you don’t have to go over again. The manicuera yuccas are planted last. There are four types. We sow the tobacco seeds ﬁrst, watering them in well-burned places, for example, the tip of a large tree, where the leaves are burned and left in the soil. This is good ash, with good fertiliser and good ﬂavour. Where there was no burning there is almost no compost, so I do not sow there, because if I do, nothing grows. The most delicate thing is tobacco; women with their period, pregnant or breastfeeding cannot walk on it; neither can men who leave heat because the plant disappears. If you know how to cure (if you are a shaman), then pass through with a popai in your hand. When the planting is ﬁnished, women cannot return to that place, so men go and water the plants. Since he has been sowing with prayer, with his mentality, there is no danger.
Coca is planted in small rows in a place where several can ﬁt. It is better a place without sticks, in order to harvest. Coca is simple: you can plant it wherever you want, even in the middle of the other crops, you plant it and it grows there on its own. It only stops growing if the seed was bad.”
Chagra: six months
“Tobacco lasts for six months at most; after that, the seed is no longer there. When the seed is harvested, the bush dries and there is room to sow more yucca or other seeds. The yucca that is sown after the tobacco is not the same as the one that was sown for the ﬁrst time, but it is used so that the place is not left empty, and can be harvested at the end, as a spare. The pineapples can go in the middle of the coca, they are planted all over the chagra, they can grow anywhere.
There are other trees that can also be close to the coca, what happens [in the drawing] is that after six months they haven’t grown tall enough to be seen.”
Chagra: one year
“The trees begin to have branches, they have their place to grow, but there is still room for the yucca and the caimarona grape. Those that branch out, like the guamos, make shade and stink up the yucca, which does not grow anymore and dies. I must calculate the height of each tree: if I plant this tree here, it covers these plants, but after four months it would already be taller, so I plant it further away… This is how I choose the place to plant each bush. The cucuy almost does not sprout branches; the guacurí, when young is rather small, and when the bush is big, then the branch is extends like any other tree, so it makes shade, but that happens after a year or two. At this time the pineapple is with ﬂower, it is just dropping its little head, it is just maturing. If the soil is good, pineapple grows fast and loads quickly.”
Chagra: a year and a half
“By this time there are only trees, everything has been harvested. There are no more tubers and yucca, there is nothing left, only the coca and the fruit trees, which are almost done. The stubble is starting to grow, weeds, grasses and vines are taking over everything.
The plants that remain are: caimarona grape, guamo, maraca, chontaduro and caimo. By now they have already borne fruit several times, they can now be harvested. The grapes are beginning to load on the branches, and so do the maraca: when they branch out it is because they are beginning to bear ﬂower and fruit.
Here you can see the yarumos, which are part of the stubble. Also the cashew tree, which can be wild, but we always plant the one with the big seed. The cucuy, when ripens, blackens and rots. The tip from where the branch comes out is uncovered and the juice is taken, which is like a caguana and it has a small and very sweet seed. They call it cucuy, we call it neku+eko. The tiger hand, although it has only one name, has two varieties: one has a larger seed, the other has a slightly smaller seed: its name is nojá. There is still tobacco, at this moment the seed is in full bloom, [in the drawing] you can’t see the trunk. Then, for the last time, the leaves are pulled off and the seeds are removed. The plant is dead.
This is the end, the harvest is ﬁnished, the yucca is ﬁnished, and most of the trees remain. This plot of land is already part of the stubble. A tree is ﬂowering and there is a vine that is growing there. Since it is stubble, different vines start to grow. Then, we leave the old chagra and move further on, up into the forest, for the next chagra. Also, if you want to extend to one side, it is also possible. In all these places, stubble remains.”