Lessons from Amazon’s indigenous groups for rethinking global forest governance

Indigenous agroforestry practices and forest understandings can help to improve global forest governance, study suggests.

With the ongoing planetary crisis there is a growing amount of research done to re/imagine sustainable and alternative ways of living and perceiving the world. Global Development Studies researcher Nidia Catherine González and an Academy research fellow and associate professor of Global Development Studies, Markus Kröger have recently published an article (in Forest Policy and Economics -Journal) which explores the potential of indigenous agroforestry practises based on non-dominant ways of perceiving life in improving global forest governance. According to the study, indigenous ontologies and forest practises from the Amazon could provide global forest governance more nuanced understanding of what forests actually are, thus providing tools to rethink the value and significance of forests in the context of global crises.

Simplified definitions, harmful practises

González and Kröger show that one of the problems with global forest management today is that the technical definitions and descriptions of forests are often extremely lacking and based on epistemological positivism, contrasting the holistic ways, which many indigenous groups understand forests. In practice this has meant that in many cases, policies aimed at safeguarding forests actually means expanding tree plantations or calculating and basing forest retainment policies on forest definitions revolving around tree-height measurements, with a particular focus on capturing carbon.

The study shows that the current terminology and definitions used in policy-making and environmental management have therefore resulted in policy-narratives which for example deem agroforestry and monocultures as equals (which in reality are ecologically quite opposite of each other when speaking of forestry practises). González and Kröger say that one of the reasons behind the overly simplified technical language is that the terminology used in global forest governance has been heavily influenced by lobbying from the industrial forestry sector. In addition, many modern forest uses, best exemplified by industrial forestry and the expansion of tree plantations, also continue to hide the diverse impacts of their actions on forests and the species living in them, thus enabling the continuation of such practises. 

The article therefore suggests that current forest definitions could and should be complemented by interpreting different aspects of indigenous forest practices and applying these diverse ways of understanding forests into global forest governance. For example, many indigenous agroforestry practices from the Amazon challenge and contrast the previously discussed technical definitions of forests. The article shows how the Amazon indigenous communities interviewed in the study emphasize care, reciprocity, and relational approach in understanding and interacting with the forest. For many of the interviewed communities, what in modern terms is called a forest, actually consists of a myriad of species and processes that develop through interconnected and ever-changing dynamics. Analyzed in modern terms, these dynamics could be viewed as acknowledging a three-dimensional interconnection of biophysical, human and mystical elements, and which are embedded in a sacred use of forest resources.

Chagra - treating the forest as a living whole


chagra species diversity abel rodriguez

Chagra species diversity (image from Rodriguez, 2013)

As an example of Amazon’s indigneous forestry practises, indigenous peoples living in the northwestern Colombian Amazon (such as the Nonuya, Andoque, and Ceima Chacivera communities) practise what is called “Chagra”, a dynamic and inclusive system of sustainably using the forest. The concept of “Chagra'' refers to a system of different indigenous (agro)forestry processes that treat the forest as an integrated and interconnected whole. Within those indigenous ontologies which include the idea of Chagra, the forest is understood as a system composed of ever-changing dynamics, which also include agroforestry practises. Indigenous understandings of forests are therefore not about carbon sinks or timber stocks, but are about the holistic and reciprocal processes which supply subsistence of food, medicinal products, housing, and recreation. All these connections also promote the reflective practice of reciprocity between the human and other-than-human nature. The aim of being in forests and using the forest in Chagra is to maintain life and enable the existence of all beings in the area. 

“The jungle is our beloved land, it has received us at birth, it has given us everything that has allowed us to grow, it gives us food while we live, and when we are about to die, it prepares us to return to it. We are a granite of earth that circulates, with a beginning and an end, which is part of a spiral of life, delicate, we are responsible for not breaking it (the spiral of life).” Excerpt from an author''s interview (Putumayo, July 2009, translated by the authors)

The practises of Chagra are founded on valuing gradual transformations, where the time frame is different from those in the global north, and which aims for the collective benefit. The practises also take into account that anything that is destroyed in a forest, needs to be restored to support multiple existences. Chagra as a system is therefore not just about cultivating plant species usable for humans, but that the indigenous people are also taking part in caring for other-than-human beings: for large animals (domestic and wild) and the insects that the Chagra feeds for example. So rather than considering only the tree species with a certain height or crown cover, these indigenous views focus on the interactions and interconnections of the forest as a populated place full of life, where every being has a function in this relation.

In addition, according to the authors, the Amazon indigenous forest understandings can offer alternative ways of viewing human and non-human nature’s relations in general, which are extremely needed in tackling the current climate emergency and global crises at large. Chagra-type forest practices could be partial solutions in tackling the unsustainability of modern global forest governance, while simultaneously addressing the global food and biodiversity crises, therefore offering multiple benefits for human communities and ecosystems. The scaling up of the kind of indigenous agroecological agroforestry practices presented by González and Kröger and other similar practices offers openings for comprehensive solutions in a time of complex and multiple global crises, with the potential to sustain all of life in its myriad forms.

Read the full article:

The potential of Amazon indigenous agroforestry practices and ontologies for rethinking global forest governance - Nidia Catherine González and Markus Kröger (2020)

Nidia Catherine González is a researcher in Global Development Studies at the University of Helsinki. In her research she studies how local and global environmental governance can be bridged to solve trans-national environmental problems. Much of González' recent work explores how socio-technological innovations produce and reproduce power relations in the Global South and aims to clarify adaptive governance mechanisms to integrate local environmental knowledge in strategic global problems.

Markus Kröger is an Associate Professor of Global Development Studies at the University of Helsinki and a research fellow at the Academy of Finland. Professor Kröger is one of the founding members of The Global Extractivisms and Alternatives research initiative (EXALT) and a member of the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS). He has written extensively on global natural resource politics, conflicts, and social resistance movements and the economic outcomes, especially in relation to iron ore mining and forestry. He is also an expert in political economy, development, and globalization in Latin America, India, and the Arctic.

Images of Chagra agroforestry practises are from: Rodríguez, A., 2013. Las plantas cultivadas por la gente de centro en la Amazonia colombiana (Tropenbos Colombia).