Watch this video clip from Survival International:
Lots of things one could see and say here, including the fact that the people pictured are almost certainly not “uncontacted” (machete, etc.), as well as the very grim future they likely face given the history of relations between the global economy and native people. From a land use perspective, though, my big response to watching this was “look at the agroforestry!!” Watch it again with that in mind if you missed it. Look at the pattern of land use and the structure of the forest around their settlement.
Here’s why I think this matters, and why I posted this video. Most land use in the modern world is either urban, suburban, agricultural, or “wild”. Very neat categories and not a lot in between. But that situation is a relatively recent phenomenon historically, and is (I venture to say) based on some cultural beliefs and values that we may not want to be unconsciously passing on.
In contrast, the older pattern of land use from long-term inhabitation of bioregions around the world of is of a gradient, rather than a boundary, between “nature” and “agriculture”. Dr. Kat Anderson, in her groundbreaking book Tending the Wild, describes how in traditional settlements in northwestern Mexico she couldn’t find the edge of cultivation – garden crops stretched out in patches into the “wild” landscape and ethnobotanically important “wild” plants grew in patches among the cultivated gardens closer in the village. She describes how the incredible abundance and productivity of the “wild” landscapes of California found by early Euro-American Gold Rush colonists and explorers was a direct result of human management and stewardship. When John Muir first saw Yosemite Valley it was a vast prairie, maintained by Yosemite Miwok women harvesting camas and other edible lily bulbs with digging sticks, and by the use of fire in the landscape to maintain the meadow/grassland stage of succession as well. The removal of the native people to make way for Yosemite National Park led to the cessation of those land use patterns and the succession of the valley prairie into pine forest:
Tom Wessel’s Reading the Forested Landscape tells the same story about the managed “wild” landscapes of present-day New England pre-European contact. The fundamental changes in native economies created by the devastation of European diseases, displacement, and genocide (as well as the destabilizing impact of the fur trade) meant an outright end to the old pattern of land use in southern New England by the mid-1600’s. The open, park-like oak/chestnut/hickory forests and savannas and the coastal and river valley prairies and meadows, both maintained by anthropogenic fire, became a distant memory echoed in early colonists’ journals and the scattered, disappearing patches of those landscapes that persisted through cycles of deforestation and the growth of new European towns and cities.
So “uncontacted” or not, I think the rainforest-dwelling people pictured in this film clip have something to teach modern-economy dwellers about a deep relationship to place, and the patterns of land care and food production that arise from that relationship. Because consider this: what is the future landscape that your pattern of interaction is leading towards, in the place where you live? What is your “horizon habitat”? And, most importantly, what horizon habitat do you want for your children and grandchildren? And once you know the answer to that question, what would it take to guide succession in that direction? What would you need to learn and unlearn, what patterns of interaction and stewardship would you need to adopt, if your family’s health and happiness depended on that horizon ecosystem?
Because, in an uncertain future, it just might.