Protecting the Rainforest with Diversification

August 27, 2013

The Amazon rainforest is one of the most biologically diverse regions of the world, but the delicate balance of the ecosystem is threatened every day by deforestation and industrialization. The ever-changing climate may also present issues when it comes to preserving the rainforests, but indigenous people living in the Amazon are adjusting their practices to accommodate the changes.

Dr. Jan Salick, a researcher from the Missouri Botanical Garden, has been taking expedition cruises to the Amazon to observe and work with the Yanesha, an indigenous tribe living in the Amazon basin region of Peru, for 40 years to learn how they live in the Amazon region without disrupting its delicate ecosystem. She also studied the Tibetan people of Nepal and found many similarities between the cultures.

"Both cultures use traditional knowledge to create, manage and conserve this biodiversity, and both are learning to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change," said Salick. "They have much to learn and to offer the world if we can successfully learn to integrate science and traditional knowledge."

Dr. Salick noted that the Yanesha were instrumental in making the cocona plant more diverse by selecting seeds based on their desired outcome. The cocona fruit takes on the characteristics of the mothering plant, which makes it easy for the Yanesha to discern which plants they want to produce more of. The Rainforest Conservation Fund reports that this fruit can be the size of an apple or small as cranberries. The smaller berry-sized fruits, known as coconillo, are typically sweeter and have softer skins than the cocona grande. Dr. Salick's research suggests the Yanesha have helped the cocona diversify by choosing to plant seeds based on what they enjoyed, which means less desirable fruits were phased out over time.

She also observed how the Yanesha's agricultural practices help to fuel biodiversity. They essentially employ crop rotation, cycling through what plants are grown in which region each year. Dr. Salick suggests this practice promotes biodiversity and long-term sustainability.

Her research may provide a better understanding of how to take what is needed from the Amazon rainforest without disturbing it. Ecotourists can learn more about the challenges of sustaining the rainforests on their Amazon River cruises. Seeing the ecosystem up close can further visitors' understanding of just how important it is to preserve and protect this diverse region.